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Colorado fire victim films her own evacuation

Posted at 2:40 PM, Jun 30, 2012
and last updated 2012-06-30 14:40:23-04

By Chelsea J. Carter and Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN) – Nicole Frye watered the wooden roof of the house where she’d lived for 18 years. Then she got in her car and captured her own evacuation with a video camera.

All around her, the sky glowed orange from the towering flames that had roared down the mountain and into western subdivisions of Colorado Springs.

“Oh my God,” she sobbed. “We gotta get out of here.”

She knew her neighborhood would never be the same.

“So I wanted to make sure I had at least a memory of something that was remaining,” she said.

She wanted a memory, too, of Colorado’s most destructive fire, which, a week after igniting, has consumed nearly 350 homes, damaged two dozen more and killed two people.

Firefighters battled the blaze again Saturday, hoping to prevent the toll from mounting further. But authorities feared the numbers will probably increase as they get their first look at some of the harder hit areas.

Firefighters, aided by helicopters, air tankers and military planes dropping water and retardant, fought to contain the inferno, still threatening 20,000 homes and 160 businesses.

Colorado National Guard troops will deploy Saturday night to assist local law enforcement officers.

Already the Waldo Canyon Fire has scorched more than 17,000 acres — close to 27 square miles — and brought fear, anxiety and grief to Colorado Springs, the state’s second-largest city that was, until a few days ago, happily situated in the valley below picturesque Pikes Peak.

It was 30% contained by early Saturday morning, said incident commander Rich Harvey.

Steve Cox, assistant to the Colorado Springs mayor, said the city remains hopeful.

“But it is a long process,” he told CNN affiliate KKTV. “It’s going to take us a long time to recover from this.”

Hundreds of residents were allowed to begin returning home late Friday after authorities lifted mandatory evacuation orders in some areas.

Thousands more waited for word when they would be able to go home.

And others, like Frye, will have to stay with friends, family or in hotel rooms. She learned her house was gone. She has not returned yet but seen the devastation in aerial photographs.

The city has organized bus tours for about 4,000 people whose neighborhoods were charred.

“You’ll be able to look at your property,” Cox said. “You’re not going to be able to get out and walk around the property because we’re still in an active fire situation.”

Barry Boulier was among the more than 36,000 forced to evacuate when 65 mph winds on Tuesday whipped the blaze into a firestorm that spewed ash and smoke “like a scene out of the movie ‘Dante’s Peak.’ “

It was so thick, that he couldn’t see or breathe, he said on CNN iReport.

“It happened so fast — our only thought was leave NOW.”

Boulier and his wife have been staying with family since they fled, though they have since learned their home was spared after firefighters stopped its advance in their backyard.

His neighbors, though, are not so lucky. Most of their houses, he said, have been burned.

“I’m kind of dreading returning,” he said.

President Barack Obama declared Colorado a disaster area to allow federal dollars to help fight the Waldo Canyon Fire as well the High Park Fire, which has burned more than 87,000 acres and destroyed more than 200 homes in northern Colorado since it began on June 9.

“We have been putting everything we have into trying to deal with what is one of the worst fires we’ve seen here in Colorado,” said Obama, who toured Colorado Springs on Friday to get a first-hand look at the devastation.

“We’ve still got a lot more work to do.”

The U.S. Forest Service has warned it could be mid-July before the fire is fully under control.

A second death was announced Friday by Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey, whose voice broke as he told reporters the body was found in the same gutted home where the first was discovered late Thursday.

Police spokeswoman Barbara Miller told CNN the remains were believed to be those of a couple reported missing by family members.

Police did not identify the couple.

The cause of the fire, which has cost more than $6.9 million to fight, according to estimates posted on InciWeb, is still under investigation. Authorities are investigating reports that an arsonist may be responsible.

The wildfire is one of many fires burning in the West right now — including in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah — that are straining firefighting resources.

But the effort to tame the flames in Colorado got a boost Friday from the military, which is deploying eight of the U.S. Forest Service’s Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems aboard C-130 aircraft. The systems will drop retardant on the Waldo Canyon Fire as well as other wildfires still burning in Colorado.

A battalion of U.S. Army troops from Fort Carson, Colorado, also began training Friday to fight wildfires.

More than 500 troops are undergoing three days of training, according to Lt. Col. Steven Wollman, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division headquartered at the base just south of Colorado Springs.

A decision has not been made whether to send the troops into the Waldo Canyon Fire.

CNN’s Greg Morrison and Dana Ford contributed to this report.