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Residents on alert as Colorado's most destructive wildfire kills 2, destroys 378 homes

John Wark / AP

Burnt trees and destroyed homes are left in the wake of a wildfire in the densely wooded Black Forest area northeast of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Thursday.

Thousands of Colorado Springs residents remained poised for mandatory evacuation orders Friday as crews fought to prevent the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history from spreading inside the city limits.

Two people have died in the 15,700-acre Black Forest fire – one of three major blazes burning in the state – and 38,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

It had reduced 378 homes to cinders by 10 p.m. local time Thursday (midnight ET Friday), according to the El Paso County Sheriff's office. It also covered more than 24 square miles. 

Hot, variable winds were hampering efforts to fight the fires.

As of late Thursday, flames from the Black Forest fire had not damaged properties within the Colorado Springs city limits but the sheriff’s office issued a mandatory evacuation order for about 1,000 homes inside the north-eastern boundary and a voluntary order for about 2,000 more, Reuters reported.

Thursday’s two victims were found in the garage of a home in a heavily wooded area, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said, adding that their car doors "were open as if they were loading."

Full coverage from NBC station KUSA

"All evidence from the scene is they were planning on departing," he said. Two other people who had been reported missing were later found safe.

The incident brought back 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.

For the Gardner family of Colorado Springs – the state’s second-biggest city, with 400,000 residents  - it's the second year in a row they've lost their home.

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

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

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."

"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.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed three disaster emergencies Thursday authorizing a combined $10.15 million to help pay for firefighting and other costs.


Drought conditions fuel blazes in the U.S.

In the area of the Royal Gorge fire, about 15 miles from Cañon City, 48 of the 52 nearby structures 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.

That blaze also 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.

Meanwhile, the Big Meadows fire that broke out Monday afternoon on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park was at 333 acres by late Thursday, KUSA reported. However, no structures or communities are threatened.

NBC News' Miguel Almaguer, Alastair Jamieson and Christopher Nelson and Reuters contributed to this report.


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