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Authorities: 92 structures destroyed in Colo. fire

September 08, 2010

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) -- Will Esposito describes an otherworldly scene after a wildfire tore through a canyon in the Colorado foothills: Some houses in his neighborhood burning while others stood intact, a propane tank shooting flames into the sky, and an eerie quiet interrupted only by firefighting helicopters and airplanes.

"There was something majestic and beautiful about it, although it's terrible that some people lost their homes," Esposito said after he took a clandestine tour on Tuesday.

The 11-square-mile blaze had destroyed at least 92 structures and damaged at least eight others by Tuesday night, Boulder County sheriff's Cmdr. Rick Brough said.

A partial list of property destroyed contained the addresses of 53 homes on a government website Tuesday night. The list was based on a survey of only 5 to 10 percent of the burned area.

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No injuries have been reported since the fire broke out on Monday. Officials say the cause is still under investigation.

Authorities said about 3,500 people have been evacuated from about 1,000 homes. Esposito said deputies told him to leave at about 4 p.m. Monday, but he stayed behind to watch, finally driving to Boulder at about 9 p.m.

"It was very desolate. Everybody cleared out," he said. "No one was around at all."

On Tuesday, state troopers blocked roads leading into the evacuation area, letting only firefighters in. Esposito -- frustrated by the scant information officials have offered about the destruction -- took his mountain bike to a trailhead and rode back in to his neighborhood to see for himself.

"It sends chills through your body a little bit," he said of the scene.

Esposito saw three homes burning on Monday and three more on Tuesday, but his own was unscathed.

"It was very pocketed. Some areas were severely burned and some were not (burned) at all," he said.

Esposito, 27, who works as a bartender in Boulder, said he never felt in danger and kept clear lines of escape in view at all times.

"I never felt foolhardy," he said.

Gov. Bill Ritter, who declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, pleaded with residents to be patient and not try to get back into the area until firefighters tell them it's safe. Brough said that could be two days away.

"It's important right now for people who have been evacuated to just be patient. This is a very volatile situation," the governor said after touring the area. His disaster declaration released $5 million to fight the blaze.

Between 300 and 400 firefighters were on the ground Tuesday and more were arriving, said Laura McConnell, a spokeswoman for the incident management team. Aerial tankers and helicopters dumped thousands of gallons of fire retardant and water in the fire's path, but McConnell had no specifics.

Crews managed to save the historic town of Gold Hill, including an Old West grocery store and structures once used for stagecoach stops.

Though westerly dry winds that spread the blaze Monday had eased Tuesday, authorities would not say whether fire lines had been established or speak about the prospect of containing the fire.

"There's no information about anything. ... I am so frustrated," said Ronda Plywaski, who fled her home with her husband and their two German shepherds and spent the night at an evacuation center at the University of Colorado. "I just want to know if my house is OK."

Authorities were trying to figure out what caused a failure in an alert system designed to automatically call the homes of residents under evacuation orders. Officials said the system successfully sent out eight rounds of calls but failed on two.

Barb Halpin, a Boulder County spokeswoman, said the failures happened later in the afternoon when other areas outside the immediate vicinity of the fire were being alerted.

"It's unfortunate that those callouts failed," Halpin said. "We don't know the reason. Obviously, we're investigating," she said.

Halpin said that sheriff's deputies went to the areas where the notifications failed to knock on people's doors and tell them to evacuate.

Residents gathered Tuesday at a mountain overlook to watch the yellowish-brown haze. One of them, Kirk Parker, sipped a beer on the tailgate of his Nissan pickup and spotted the roof of his home with binoculars. It wasn't on fire.

"I think we're safe," Parker said.

David Myers started hearing from people Tuesday afternoon that they think his house was destroyed. He said while he's sure he will experience "a varied level of emotions" about losing it, he remembers how he felt when fleeing the wildfire.

"All that really matters to us was my wife and I getting each other, getting the dogs, and getting out of there," Myers said. "We grabbed a couple of things, but when we look around, and we go, 'What should I take?' it all seems pretty irrelevant."

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