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Aided by rain, firefighters make progress in battle against Colorado fire

By Steve Almasy and George Howell, CNN
updated 8:48 PM EDT, Sun June 16, 2013
Plumes of smoke rise above Del Norte Peak in Colorado on Sunday, June 23. Fires have been burning across Colorado since early June. Plumes of smoke rise above Del Norte Peak in Colorado on Sunday, June 23. Fires have been burning across Colorado since early June.
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Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
Wildfires spread across Colorado
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Royal Gorge fire, southwest of Colorado Springs, now 100% contained
  • Sheriff unsure when residents can return home
  • Firefighters are "optimistic" after making inroads battling Black Forest Fire in central Colorado
  • 473 structures have been destroyed, 17 partially damaged and two people have died

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Colorado Springs, Colorado (CNN) -- The hundreds of firefighters battling a huge blaze near Colorado Springs, Colorado, had a good night, the federal official overseeing the fight said Sunday.

It was "nothing backwards, all forward," incident commander Rich Harvey said.

The 16,000-acre fire is now 65% contained, he said.

"There's still a lot of (small fires) out there to get still," he said. The plan for Sunday was to "mop up smokes" and maintain the perimeter.

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said it will take some time before residents will be allowed to go home permanently.

"We have a crime scene in there. We have fire in there. We have downed power lines in there. We have trees falling each time there is a gust of wind," he said, adding he was calling it a crime scene until proven otherwise.

He also said he didn't want people to get a false sense of security because there no longer a big plume of smoke.

The news came after about 800 firefighters went on an offensive, with a boost from the weather.

The weather helped as some rain, more clouds and less wind contributed to marked progress Friday. That continued into Saturday, as defined by a few simple measures: no more structures destroyed, no more area burned and more inroads corralling what's left of the fire.

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There was a 30% chance of scattered afternoon thunderstorms, the National Weather Service said Sunday.

In the first few days after the fire broke out, crews had zero containment on the Black Forest Fire as it ravaged woods and neighborhoods. County spokesman Dave Rose told CNN it appeared to be the most destructive in the history of Colorado -- a state that's all too familiar with devastating wildfires.

But each of Harvey's updates over the weekend indicated victories for firefighters, as the percentage of acres where the fire was controlled grew from 5% Friday morning to 65% contained by Sunday morning.

What's left behind, in some areas, "looks like a nuclear bomb went off," according to Maketa.

He said Sunday that crime in the wake of the fire was low -- four burglaries and two other minor incidents.

Residents hope for best, brace for worst

As of Saturday afternoon, authorities had counted 473 structures totally lost due to the 4-day-old blaze, with another 17 partially damaged. Two people had died.

The speed and intensity of the flames created a pattern where, for the most part, homes either were destroyed or escaped unscathed, Maketa explained Saturday.

In some areas, he said, there's no number on the house, no mailbox and virtually no other signs that someone lived there just a few days ago.

"You can't even recognize where there was a house or some other kind of structure," the sheriff said. "That is the level of incineration and destruction that took place in some areas."

Gallery: Wildfire photographer Kari Greer goes inside the inferno

New grandparents flee with family; fire destroys home

Firefighters also made significant progress on the Royal Gorge Fire, southwest of Colorado Springs, announcing it was 100% contained Sunday night. The fire scorched more than 3,200 acres, including a beloved carousel and at least 20 buildings, according to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

"It's burned to a cinder," he said Friday of the area.

Video shows firefighters fending off fire from house's deck

The governor has declared a disaster emergency in Rocky Mountain National Park, northwest of Denver, due to the Big Meadows Fire that's burned hundreds of acres there.

The latest flare-up is the Ward Gulch Fire in the western part of the state. No structures are reported destroyed yet in that blaze, but gusty winds, low humidity and warm weather have firefighters on edge.

While all those fires pose dangers in their own ways, the Black Forest Fire is still by far the biggest and the most dangerous, which is why thousands in that area remain evacuated, their homes in areas where it is too perilous to return.

Woman records wildfire evacuation

Said Maketa: "We're hoping to gain inches each day to get people's lives back to normal, where it can be returned to normal."

Study warns of continued wildfires in western U.S.

CNN's George Howell reported from Colorado Springs, and Steve Almasy wrote in Atlanta. CNN's Greg Botelho contributed to this report.

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