COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — The wind-whipped Black Forest fire continued to burn out of control Wednesday night, devouring thousands of brittle acres, destroying nearly 100 homes and forcing as many as 9,500 people to flee, some leaving with only the clothes on their backs.
No deaths have been confirmed, but authorities now say one person has been reported missing.
"We are throwing everything at it we can," a weary-sounding Terry Maketa, El Paso County sheriff, said at a late-afternoon news conference. As he spoke, air tankers circled overhead and smoke stung eyes and throats as far away as suburban Denver.
For many on Wednesday, the eerie comparisons to the nearby, deadly Waldo Canyon fire last year -- 11 days shy of its anniversary -- were impossible to ignore.
"How in the world can this happen two years in a row? What is going on?" asked John Riesberg, a real estate agent who has friends in the Black Forest fire's path. He had been working his cellphone all day to make sure they got out safely.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 16, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Colorado wildfires: In the June 13 LATEtxra section, an article about Colorado's wildfires said that last year's wildfire in Waldo Canyon had jumped a ridge 10 miles east of the current Black Forest blaze. The ridge is 10 miles west of the Black Forest fire.
His wife, Karen, remembers driving into the walls of smoke during last year's fire, trying to reach her son and daughter-in-law's house to retrieve their cats. The house survived, but the fear and images of that fire haunt her.
"You try to reassure yourself that it was an isolated incident, but now --" she said, her voice trailing off.
The Waldo Canyon fire, the most expensive in state history, roared through a densely populated subdivision after jumping a ridge just 10 miles east of the site of the Black Forest fire. Two people died and 346 homes were destroyed.
On Wednesday, officials feared that the Black Forest fire would burn as many as 12,000 acres before the day was over. So far, 92 houses were considered a total loss and five were partially burned in and around Black Forest, a postcard-pretty area of homes tucked amid dense ponderosa pines about 13 miles northeast of Colorado Springs. Maketa said he expected the number of houses lost to rise.
Maketa said the cause of the fire was unknown. He declined to comment on its origins but did say there were no reports of lightning in the area. Crews also were battling three other wildfires in Colorado and one in New Mexico.
The Black Forest fire, first reported just after 1 p.m. Tuesday, spread quickly, propelled by a dangerous combination of high winds, low humidity and scorching temperatures. Throughout Wednesday, area residents gathered around television sets or huddled in front of computers in search of updates as the evacuation areas expanded.
Among those who fled was Pam Buick, 70, who slept in her car at a Wal-Mart parking lot Tuesday night after racing from her home with her cat, hearing aid, computer, medication and a bagful of clothes.
When she went into the store's bathroom Wednesday morning, she met a woman who had also camped in the parking lot. She was brushing her teeth.
Buick also cannot help but think of last year's fire. As she drove down Interstate 25 on Wednesday, she saw a vast plume rising to the left from the Black Forest fire. One year ago she was on the same highway, but the plume she saw then was to her right.
"That's when it really hit me," she said.
Shawna Richardson said it didn't feel real even as she watched the smoke over the treetops Tuesday afternoon. Then chunks of ash began to fall from the sky about 4:30 p.m. She had moved to Colorado five days before from Oklahoma and was staying with her sister, Judy McDowell, in Black Forest.
Suddenly smoke began to roll through the trees like a fog, enveloping their yard.
McDowell shoved things into cars: "Pictures, dogs, cats, children. Not necessarily in that order." Law enforcement officers drove past and ordered them to evacuate. The officers said they were looking for a house where a 10-year-old boy was reportedly home alone. A few minutes later the officers drove by again, but this time they were more insistent: "Now!"
Maketa said Wednesday that a 10-year-old boy was found safe during the evacuation but was not sure whether that was the same child.
Michelle Bell struggled for composure Wednesday as she walked dazed into an evacuation shelter at a high school in Monument.
"I've lived in Colorado long enough to know a fire can turn on a dime. A half-hour ago it turned," she said.