Story posted at 11:30pm 3/24

A grass fire that blew up quickly in Douglas County yesterday is mostly contained.  The fire forced more than eight thousand people out of their homes and blackened around 1600 acres.  150 firefighters and four aircraft battled the blaze, keeping it away from homes.  Evacuees were allowed back in late in the evening, but warned to be ready to leave on a moment’s notice -- a cautiously happy ending after many anxious hours in Douglas county. 

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Early in the afternoon and evacuation notice went out to all the residents in four mile radius, 8600 or more reverse 911 calls.  The displaced were instructed that they, and their animals, could find shelter at the Douglas County fairgrounds.

The fire struck an area dotted with horse pastures and for hours a long -- almost endless -- line of pickup trucks, pulling horse trailers, snaked toward the fairground stables. Julie Hess of Elizabeth brought in Mattie. The 10-year-old horse was in a barn that lay directly in the path of the advancing flames:

HESS: "If the fire came and the barn burned I don't know what I'd do. It'd be awful. I wanted her out."

In all, the Douglas County animal response team cared for two goats, a donkey and 120 horses, some from the Colorado Horse Park which offers boarding and hosts several equestrian competitions. The dozen or so dogs and 10 cats brought to the evacuation site were allowed to go home, but the larger animals were required to stay the night in case another evacuation order came.

Judy Paquet and her sister considered evacuating twice yesterday before finally getting their dogs in the car and driving to the Fairgrounds. She said she knew it was time when she could see the flames.

PAQUET: "We thought we'd be ok. But then the wind shifted and it started getting closer to the road and that's when we decided we really needed to pack up."

A Red Cross spokeswoman said just over a hundred people evacuated to the fairgrounds, and most were there just a couple hours.

Many other residents chose to stay much closer to home, sitting in a long line of cars next to the roadblock at their development.  From there, it was easy to see smoke from the fire smudged along the eastern horizon.  It mixed with the low clouds, which sent down occasional burst of hail. 

Aneatha Jones came to wait with her husband, hoping to be allowed in to grab some valuables.

JONES: "However, if I don’t hear something pretty soon, I think I’m going to cross the fence and go on over."

Jones said she’d already watched a number of neighbors duck out of their cars and walk across the field to their houses. And while she was trying to pass the time in prayer, the waiting was wearing her down.

JONES: “I feel okay because I have been praying.  But certainly a little bit nervous, just because my home is here."

It didn’t take long for Jones to get good news -- fire officials lifted the evacuation order for her neighborhood early in the evening, and for the entire fire area later last night. 

It took around 150 firefighters from numerous agencies to build containment lines around the blaze.  They staged in the parking lot of Ponderosa High School, filing it with trucks and equipment.  Mike Kyle with the Fairmount fire agency was waiting for word to head in.  Like many of the crews here, he came fresh from working on the Indian Gulch fire near Golden.  He'd gotten one night's rest between the blazes.  Asked if he was worried about a bad fire season, Kyle shrugged.

KYLE: “It’s tough to predict, you really can’t say.  It changes -- it’s all about the weather, so it changes month to month and day to day.”

But at this point, experts aren't optimistic about things changing.  At a briefing yesterday, a forest service meteorologist warned that dry conditions stretching all the way back to last August mean Colorado could be in for a very nasty fire season.