Killer Colorado Wildfire Feeding Off Wind, Thousands Flee

A house is fully engulfed with flames in the midst of the Black Forest Fire northeast of Colorado Springs on June 12, 2013.
Helen H. Richardson | Denver Post | Getty Images
A house is fully engulfed with flames in the midst of the Black Forest Fire northeast of Colorado Springs on June 12, 2013.

The fight against a massive, deadly wildfire in Colorado faces a new challenge Friday when isolated thunderstorms packing gusting winds and lightning—but little rain—churn into the region.

The fire, the worst in the state's history, has killed two people and made ashes of 379 homes. Thousands of Colorado Springs residents are poised for evacuation orders Friday, with about 13,000 residences affected, authorities said.

More than 38,000 people have already evacuated.

The Black Forest fire has raged mostly uncontrolled for days and remains only about 5 percent contained as the burn zone covered nearly 25 square miles. One of three major fires raging in Colorado, the Black Forest fire is now the most destructive on record in the state.

The two people killed appeared to have been planning to flee the area before the fire caught up with them, authorities said. Due to the fatalities, the cause of the wildfire will now be investigated as a possible homicide, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said.

The two victims were on the phone as flames ringed their home, he said.

"It appears as though the individuals were in the garage, the car doors were open as though they were loading or grabbing last minute things, and all indications are from the evidence on scene that they were planning to depart very quickly," Maketa said.

Aircraft dropping flame-retardant chemicals swooped low over the wooded residential areas as 750 firefighters on the ground tried to battle back the licking flames that threatened to encroach on the city limits of Colorado Springs. Military and National Guard personnel have joined in the fight as bone-dry conditions and whipping winds have driven the fast-moving blaze.

The National Weather Service warned that storms could develop around midday and bring winds with 40-50 mph gusts. The storms are not expected to produce significant rain.

"Mother Nature has really challenged us the last couple days," Maketa told TODAY on Friday. "Today is supposed to be another windy day, and having all those bodies will certainly be an asset, because it's really two fronts fighting the fire. Number one is the containment and stopping the growth and number two is really within the actual fire and offering the structure protection and being able to move quickly to each residence, because it's so spotty and jumping around, and we are talking about a fairly large area."

A mandatory evacuation order has been issued for 1,000 homes in the north of Colorado Springs, and about 2,000 more homes in the city were under a voluntary evacuation order. Authorities urged residents to leave their homes quickly if they were ordered to evacuate.

The Waldo Canyon fire destroyed 346 homes in the Colorado Springs area last year, making it then the most destructive Colorado wildfire on record. That fire killed two people and forced about 35,000 more to evacuate.

The U.S. Air Force Academy, located immediately north of Colorado Springs, announced Friday morning that it has opened its Emergency Family Assistance control center to help area residents affected by the growing fire.The fire has not yet crossed the Colorado Springs city limits, but officials said that erratic winds and the sheer size of the blaze makes it highly unpredictable.

"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.

A separate wildfire in the state, the Royal Gorge fire, shut down the historic Royal Gorge Bridge and a surrounding amusement park, and caused the evacuation of 900 inmates from the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility.

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That fire destroyed 48 structures surrounding the bridge, which stretches 950 feet above the Arkansas River and is located 15 miles from Cañon City.

"We've see a lot of pictures of the damage, but it's nothing that's not recoverable," Fremont County Commissioner Debbie Bell told the Cañon City Daily Record. "Fremont County and Cañon City are still strong and viable. We are going to survive this.

The Big Meadows fire in Rocky Mountain National Park was reported to have spread over 333 acres by late Thursday, according to NBC News affiliate KUSA. That fire was in a remote area and did not threaten any residences or communities.

Isolated afternoon thunderstorms in the Colorado Springs region could complicate efforts by 750 firefighters to tame the raging Black Forest fire.

The National Weather Service warns that storms could develop around noon and the threat of lightning and high gusting winds will exist into the evening.

In fact, those winds could gust into the 40-50 mph range, creating havoc on the fire line. Even worse, the storms are not expected to produce any significant rain that would help smother the 3-day-old blaze.

By Matthew DeLuca, NBC News