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Two killed as Colorado wildfires destroy 360 homes, force evacuations in Colorado Springs

The Black Forest fire has become the most destructive in Colorado history, devouring more than 360 homes. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

Two people have died in the 15,700-acre wildfire that has forced the evacuations of about 38,000 people in the Colorado Springs area, authorities said Thursday.

The bodies were found in the garage of a home in a heavily wooded area, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said at a news conference, adding that their car doors "were open as if they were loading," he said.

"All evidence from the scene is they were planning on departing," he said. 

Two other people who had been reported missing were found safe Thursday morning, he said.

The Black Forest fire — one of three major blazes burning in the state — covered between 24 and 25 square miles and was only 5 percent contained, Maketa said. It had reduced 360 homes to cinders by Thursday afternoon.

For the Gardner family of Colorado Springs, it's the second year in a row they've lost their home.

"Here we go again," Terrie Gardner, who lost her home in the Waldo Canyon fire last year, told NBC station KUSA of Denver.

Gardner and her husband, John, were living with her parents, Bryan and Bonnie Lord, after they lost everything last year. Now the Black Forest fire has destroyed that home, too.  

The Lords had lived there for 28 years. All that's left are two cats, a dog, a laptop and a couple of checkbooks. Everything else in the home — family photos, important paperwork, all of the new appliances the Gardners had bought for their prospective new home — is gone.

Terri Gardner said the situation was "kind of overwhelming at first. We've practiced this once before."

But "you can't change it," Bonnie Lord told the station. "It's happened. What's gone is gone."

Authorities said about 13,000 more properties were threatened, and 38,000 people in the region were forced to flee. The evacuees won't be allowed to return to the area until Friday at the earliest, they said.

"Decisions to evacuate are difficult, and those of you who had to evacuate, we know it's very difficult for you," Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach said.

Police Chief Peter Carey said he was in discussions with the National Guard to provide security in the evacuated areas.

More than 700 firefighters were at work on the fire, reinforced by active-duty military and National Guard troops, said Rich Harvey, a federal incident commander.

It was not just the worst of three destructive fires burning simultaneously across the state, but also the worst in state history, authorities said. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed three disaster emergencies Thursday authorizing a combined $10.15 million to help pay for firefighting and other costs.

A revised evacuation order for a large area on the northeast side of the Colorado Springs area included a mandatory order for some residential areas of the city itself — meaning "you are in immediate danger. Load your family and pets, and GO NOW," the sheriff's office said. 

Colorado Springs and El Paso County evacuation map (.pdf)

The flames racing toward Colorado Springs — second only to Denver as the state's biggest city, with 400,000 residents — raised memories of last year's Waldo Canyon fire, which swept through the area and was the most destructive in the state's history to that point, destroying 346 homes and forcing more than 35,000 people to evacuate.

"I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined we'd be dealing a year later with a very similar circumstance," Maketa said.

Drought conditions fuel blazes in the U.S.

Shifting winds remained a concern, Harvey said.

"I do not like wind," he said.

"Shifting is sometimes good and sometimes bad," he added. "We did not have any reports today as it shifted around that it caused any serious problems."

A separate blaze threatened a historic bridge as it spread about 100 miles southwest of Denver.

Forty-eight of the 52 structures in the area of the  Royal Gorge fire, burning about 15 miles from Cañon City, were destroyed, authorities said Thursday afternoon. The fire had charred about 3,150 acres and was 20 percent contained. 

The fire is burning on both sides of the Royal Gorge Bridge, which stretches more than 950 feet above the Arkansas River and is surrounded by theme park attractions. The bridge itself was still intact, officials said at a news conference.

The Royal Gorge fire forced the evacuation of almost 900 prisoners from the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility outside Cañon City to a vacant prison in another part of the city Tuesday.

"We have made good progress on the fire today without any accidents or injuries thanks in large part to our many partners," Dennis Page, incident commander for the Royal Gorge Fire, told the Cañon City Daily Record.

Miguel Almaguer of NBC News contributed to this report.

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Colorado wildfires char homes, thousands of acres, force prison evacuation

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