COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - Two people have been killed by a wildfire that has already been called the most destructive in Colorado history as crews fought to keep it from burning into the outskirts of Colorado Springs on Thursday, law enforcement officials said.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said the bodies of two people had been recovered from the burn area of the so-called Black Forest Fire, which has blackened more than 23 square miles of heavily wooded hillsides northeast of the state’s second-largest city. The blaze started on Tuesday.
The two victims, who were not immediately identified, were overtaken by flames as they attempted to evacuate a home in a heavily wooded area, Maketa said, adding that the investigation of the fire now becomes a criminal probe.
The blaze has destroyed at least 360 homes at the northeastern fringe of Colorado Springs, and some 38,000 people have been forced to flee ahead of the flames.
With the fire still burning largely out of control and driven by erratic, 30-mile-per-hour winds that showed no sign of diminishing, officials on Thursday afternoon ordered new mandatory evacuations from about 1,000 homes in the northern tip of Colorado Springs. The homes were considered to be in immediate danger.
“Load your family, and pets and GO NOW,” the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office said in a tweet.
A voluntary evacuation order was issued for another 2,000 homes in Colorado Springs as embers drifted over the city.
“We’re not confident that if the winds changed and pushed the fire to any one of our boundaries that it could be held,” Maketa said.
In Colorado Springs, thick pillars of smoke could be seen rising from the burn areas, and the smell of burning wood and foliage lingered in the air.
More than 400 firefighters were battling the fire, assisted by water-dropping aircraft and 140 personnel from the Colorado National Guard. The Guard also loaned three UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, each carrying 500-gallon water buckets, to the effort.
Last summer, the Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed nearly 350 homes in the city and surrounding areas.
Maketa said the Black Forest Fire, named for the community where it broke out, has now claimed more homes than the Waldo blaze, which was then considered the most destructive in state history. The Waldo fire killed an elderly couple and forced 35,000 people from their homes.
Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid, Cynthia Johnston, Andre Grenon, Gary Hill