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Boulder crews gain on wildfire

Image: A chimney of a home destroyed by the Fourmile Canyon fire remains standing near Sunshine Canyon in Boulder, Colorado
A chimney is all that remains standing of a home destroyed by the fire outside Boulder, Colo. MARK LEFFINGWELL / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fire crews held a wildfire outside of Boulder at bay Friday, allowing some 2,000 evacuees to return home with a warning to be prepared to flee again.

Winds are expected to pick up again later Friday, and residents were advised to keep an eye on the weather, specifically strong winds that were expected to develop later in the day. Without power or phones, officials would have a hard time warning anyone who stayed if the fire threatened their neighborhood again. An area where at least 169 homes have burned is still off limits.

Evacuees have been out of their homes for four days, but Tom Bechkey, a geologist, didn't think it was worth returning.

"There's no power, no phone, no gas, no nothin'. Even staying up there is futile," Bechkey said at the YMCA fire shelter, where about a dozen evacuees watched the morning fire briefing on television.

Susan DiPrima returned to her three-story log house overlooking the city with a spring in her step.

"It's here! It's still here!" the retiree said with elation as she entered her house with an Associated Press reporter. Less than half a mile from her home below Sugarloaf Mountain, the ground was scorched and trees were blackened and ashy. She had been told earlier that her home had survived.

Looking at the damage through binoculars, DiPrima marveled, "Oh God, you can see the fire. I didn't know it got so close. Holy cow! We are so lucky."

Firefighters had worried strong overnight winds could fan the 6,385-acre blaze, and officials put 9,000 residents on alert for possible evacuations. On Friday they had dug containment lines around 56 percent of the fire, up from about 30 percent earlier in the day.

Authorities hope the fire can be fully contained in the next three to five days.

Jim Thomas, the head of the fire management team, said he was somewhat confident there was no threat to Boulder.

"Our optimism is much better right now," he said.

About 950 firefighters from 20 states were battling the blaze, which has cost $4 million to fight so far. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries such as a broken finger, but no one has been seriously hurt by the blaze.

Dubbed the Fourmile Canyon fire, the fire erupted Monday and quickly left smoking rubble in mountain neighborhoods filled with a mix of million-dollar homes and modest ranches. Slopes of charred trees created landscapes resembling a barren winter with gray ash instead of snow.

Other parts of central and eastern Colorado also remained under a red flag warning Friday, meaning conditions were ripe for fire.

The cause of the fire, which has destroyed more homes than any other blaze in Colorado history, remained under investigation. Authorities were looking at whether a vehicle crashed into a propane tank and set it off.

Hundreds of evacuated residents returned to their scorched homes Sunday, just as residents about 35 miles to the northeast fled houses threatened by another fast-moving blaze.

About 3,500 people have been out of their homes since Monday, many frustrated by a lack of information about what was happening behind fire lines. Some got around roadblocks by hiking and biking in.

Because of high winds Thursday, the city of Boulder told west-side residents to prepare to leave if the fire moved into town. From tony mansions to the north to a college sprawl near the University of Colorado to the south, some residents watered lawns, as well as their roofs, and packed cars with possessions. Others assembled on a smoky mountain overlook after dark, waiting to see if the distant fire glow seen earlier in the week would reappear. It didn't.

Caitlin Kolibas, 22, a college senior who lives in the University Hill neighborhood, said her parents in New Jersey were "trying to get me a little more concerned." But the university held classes as usual.

Boulder resident Lisa Carmichael loaded her pickup with a precious keepsake: Her grandfather's rocking chair.

"I lived through the Malibu fire, where the fire jumped over the Pacific Coast Highway and burned houses on the sand," Carmichael said. "So I know that with this wind, if the fire department says to take it seriously, you should take it seriously."

The loss of homes surpassed that of the 2002 Hayman fire in southern Colorado, which destroyed 133 homes and 466 outbuildings.

Nationwide, about 2.6 million acres have burned this summer, about 50 percent less than the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.