FLORISSANT • Smoke thick enough to irritate lungs, permeate clothing and reduce visibility hung in the air Friday morning, as Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell told media and a few residents at a news briefing that the threat from a nearby fire that began Thursday afternoon is not over.
“Fire danger changes every time the wind changes,” he said to the small group gathered at Evergreen Station, a store at the back-road juncture to Cripple Creek. “We do have a danger right now.”
Containment remained at zero percent by Friday afternoon, Mikesell said at a town hall at the fire station in Florissant.
The fire, located west of Cripple Creek on private and federal lands, grew from 386 acres Thursday night to just over 400 acres Friday morning and was at 673 acres by Friday afternoon, Mikesell said. No structures have been lost and no injuries reported, he said.
The fire sparked around 4:30 p.m. on County Road 11, or High Park Road, close to the roadway, Mikesell said, adding that officials are still investigating a cause.
Also unknown is when 120 people living in 42 homes that were evacuated Thursday evening, might be able to return home.
Containment must reach 100% for that to happen, Mikesell said. Priorities in battling the rugged terrain have been protecting firefighters' lives, saving structures and containing a perimeter, he said.
James McElveen lives about a mile from where the fire started. He and his wife packed their car, waved to their longtime home and slept in their car Thursday night, after being ordered to leave the Lakemoor subdivision, which is under mandatory evacuation.
“The plan is to get back home,” said McElveen, who said he worked 23 years in firefighting and was too distraught to talk much. “With the weather conditions this year, everything’s so dry.”
Bob and Lorie Schleicher think it'll be a while before they can get back into their home in Lakemoor, which sits directly below where the flames were. The couple bugged out with their two cats and two large dogs with them and stayed at a motel in Woodland Park Thursday night along with "half the neigborhood."
"We just hope our house is safe, but we don't know," Bob Schleicher said.
"It's always been our fear that hillside would catch fire," said Lorie Schleicher, "and now it's happening."
The course of the fire is uncertain, Mikesell said, as wildland fires burn where they want, and persistent low humidity, above-normal high temperatures and gusty winds made for unpredictable circumstances.
Incident Commander Matt Norden said the fire had backed down the ridge and was not moving toward homes as of Friday afternoon.
Firefighters were stationed at every house Thursday night, doing mitigation work in case the flames came closer, officials said.
The force grew from 150 professional and volunteer firefighters on scene to 200 by Friday afternoon, Mikesell said, along with representatives from agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, which owns some of the land that’s burning.
Bulldozers dug control boundaries, two helicopters made water drops and crews used “firing out” tactics — setting fire to unburned fuels between the control lines and the main fire — to try to get a handle on the situation, Norden said.
But residents are worried. Some, like Linda Dura, remember too well the campfire-ignited High Chateau fire in June 2018, which burned 1,423 acres in the area and destroyed 11 homes.
It was scary then, and it’s scary now, she said.
“We’re all nervous up here because you just don’t know,” Dura said, adding that she’s preparing to evacuate her animals in case her family needs to hurriedly leave their property.
Cripple Creek Ranch Estates, Mount Pisgah and Lost Burro Campground remained on pre-evacuation notice Friday afternoon.
An emergency shelter opened at the Cripple Creek High School, large animals can shelter at the Teller County Fairgrounds in Cripple Creek, and small animals can be taken to the Teller County Regional Animal Shelter in Divide, Mikesell said.
Workers are prepared if the fire takes a turn for the worse, he said.
Ten beds at the Pikes Peak Regional Hospital are ready for anyone injured or in need of medical attention, the sheriff said, and a coordinated response team also is doing its job.
Public donations of unopened bottle water or unopened food can be dropped off at the sheriff's office in Divide, Mikesell said.
June 8 marks the 20th anniversary of start of the human-caused Hayman Fire, which for 18 years was the largest wildfire in Colorado history, burning 138,114 acres, 600 structures and spanned four counties, including Teller County.