BLACK FOREST — On a day when firefighters could finally match the might of the devastating Black Forest fire, they also made the grimmest discovery yet in its ashes.
A somber El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said at a news conference late Thursday afternoon that firefighters found the bodies of two people in the fire's rubble. The bodies were discovered in what was the garage of a home that the blaze leveled. They were next to a car with its doors open. The car's trunk was packed full of belongings.
Although Maketa did not say who authorities believe the victims are, he said investigators have spoken to someone who talked to the victims by phone at 5 p.m. Tuesday, just hours after the fire started. In the background of the phone call, the person could hear popping and crackling sounds.
"All indication on scene is that they were planning on leaving quickly," Maketa said.
The news of the deaths puts tragic punctuation on what is now Colorado's most destructive wildfire ever. A Black Forest fire home assessment released at 10:00 p.m. Thursday by El Paso County put the number of homes destroyed since the fire began Tuesday afternoon at 379. Last summer's Waldo Canyon fire — which burned just about a dozen miles southwest of the Black Forest fire — destroyed 347 homes.
The county has stressed on their website "information concerning intact or partially damaged homes may change."
Maketa said emergency officials believe no additional homes burned Thursday in the Black Forest fire, and firefighters were largely able to hold the blaze to its massive footprint. By sundown Thursday, the fire was believed to have covered about 15,700 acres.
The cause was still unknown.
Rich Harvey, the commander of the federal incident-management team that took over firefighting duties early Thursday, estimated containment at 5 percent.
"So, not much progress," he said. "We've got a ways to go."
Harvey, though, highlighted areas on a map of the fire where crews were able to fight to a draw Thursday. Firefighters kept the blaze from moving south of Burgess Road, he said. As the fire moved north and into more grassy areas, Harvey said crews were having more success keeping it contained on that flank.
One area of concern was on the western edge, where the fire lurched unpredictably toward a large community of homes in the Flying Horse area. Slurry bombers pounded the edge, but the fire's progress prompted a new evacuation order for areas inside the Colorado Springs city limits. Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach said the evacuation order for that area would be re-evaluated in the morning.
By nightfall, the total evacuation zone for the fire covered 24 square miles in the region northeast of Colorado Springs. Maketa said 38,000 people were out of their homes.
And some won't ever be able to go back.
Frustration and anger were only a few of the emotions Richard Painter was feeling as he pulled his wife's wheelchair out of their car Thursday. They had just arrived at a makeshift shelter set up at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and found a semi-truck blocking the handicap parking spaces.
A day earlier, Painter learned that his house was consumed by the Black Forest fire. He was sleep-deprived after spending hours volunteering for the El Paso County Sheriff's office, and he was angry he had not
"We came here and people were still moving their goods and getting out, but they wouldn't let us in while our home was still there with no risk at that time," Painter said.
Now, he and his wife, Elizabeth, are staying in a hotel. They will have to get new birth certificates and Social Security cards and are struggling with the simplest of tasks — even getting utility companies to shut off their service.
"Their infrastructure has been destroyed, but do you think I can get them to stop the billing?" he said. "The phone company actually said, 'When do you want to re-establish service?' "
Others had become tortured by uncertainty.
"I would rather find out that it's gone than keep waiting," said Robert Schmidt, who left behind his wedding album, irreplaceable photos of his son and a desk he built in high school.
The sheriff's office has provided an updated list of homes destroyed, so that residents can know their fates as soon as possible. But, next to Schmidt's address on the list, there was nothing: No note that it was saved or gone.
"You don't know if you should find a hotel for the night or try to rent a house for the summer," he said.
Gov. John Hickenlooper tried to comfort fire victims at the Red Cross shelter set up at Palmer Ridge High School, but he acknowledged there was little comfort he could provide. He praised the work of firefighters.
"All you can do is fight," Hickenlooper said. "You don't give up."
Emergency personnel, too, have been working nonstop, Maketa said Thursday. A day earlier, even Maketa went door-to-door telling people to evacuate. He knocked on Victoria and Graham Jeffs' door around 6 p.m.
"I asked him if it was time to go, and he said yes," Victoria Jeffs said. "I thought we would have more time."
Officials' concern that too many people would think the same thing seemed confirmed Thursday by the discovery of the two bodies in the fire.
The same person who talked to the victims at 5 p.m. Tuesday also talked to them 40 minutes earlier, Maketa said. In that call, the victims said they saw an orange glow off to the west. They were packing up.
"We were truly hoping we could get from day to day without coming across news like this," Maketa said.
He said the victims lived down a narrow driveway in a heavily wooded area of Black Forest where the fire burned fiercely. But he wouldn't say more.
Because of the deaths, the Black Forest fire is now a criminal investigation.
Staff writers Kieran Nicholson and John Ingold contributed to this report.