Some optimism In Black Forest firefight, despite news of fatalities

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(Photo: CPR/Eric Whitney)
<p><span style="font-family: proxima-nova, &#039;Helvetica Neue&#039;, Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 17.99999237060547px; background-color: rgb(246, 246, 246);">Smoke over the Black Forest Fire in 2013.</span></p>
Photo: Black forest fire smoke
Smoke over the Black Forest Fire in 2013.

The Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs has claimed at least two lives.

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said the remains of two people were recovered Thursday afternoon. He said they were last heard from early Thursday morning.

“We do have witnesses that spoke to these people,” Maketa said, “They said they could see a glow to the west, they were packing their personal belongings, trying to get out. The person they were talking to said they could hear popping and cracking in the background, and they advised that they were leaving right now.”

Bad as the news of deaths was, Maketa said he was “pretty encouraged” by progress against the fire Thursday. Despite continuing tough weather for firefighters, he says they were able to rack up some wins.

“And we’re starting to see more of those wins throughout Black Forest, and I think that’s very encouraging,” Maketa said.

But people evacuated from their homes are feeling mostly anxious and uncertain. Scores of them came to an emergency services center the county set up in Colorado Springs to get connected to help.

Among them, Chuck and Cheryl Ernst, who evacuated Tuesday. They heard a lot of houses in their neighborhood were destroyed but still don’t know about theirs. They’re trying to keep their emotions on an even keel.

“It may well be that we need a new house, and it may well be that we don’t, so, who knows,” said Chuck.

“This is perhaps a new beginning for us,” added Cheryl.

Outside, in the parking lot where insurance companies have parked the big RVs that serve as their mobile disaster response centers, Theresa Knoll waited to talk to an adjuster. She knows her house was lost.

“Definitely hasn’t sunk in,” Knoll said. “It’s very surreal right now. I think it’s probably going to take a couple of weeks to really understand what we need and what’s the most painful to have lost."

Back inside the service center, crisis counselors like Rebecca Yount are on hand to try and help. She says she’s had lots of experiences like this one:

“One person was in tears, so I just started talking, having a conversation with her, and then as she’s talking, and calmed down, her husband started crying as well. I was just trying to let them voice how they’re feeling and what’s going on for them,” Yount said.

She’s had a lot of experience at this. Yount did the same thing for evacuees from the Waldo Canyon fire that destroyed 347 homes in Colorado Springs last summer. She’s continued to work with many of them since then, and has advice for new fire victims.

“Just take care of yourselves," she said. "It’s a really, really difficult time. People are going to have trouble sleeping, their eating habits might change. Pay attention to what your body’s telling you and try to take care of yourself. Try to sleep.”

The Red Cross opened another shelter in Colorado Springs for evacuees Thursday, and offers of free meals, places to stay and other help are pouring in just like they did last year. Colorado Springs is getting good at responding to the kind of natural disaster it had hoped it would never see again.