Click photo to enlarge
Steve Boone sees the remains of the home he shared with his wife and two daughters in the Black Forest Fire area on Friday, June 14, 2013.

BLACK FOREST -- Firefighters battling the Black Forest fire finally caught a break from the weather Friday, as cooler temperatures and rain helped them begin to turn back the state's most destructive wildfire.

"Cloud cover and the rain made a tremendous impact. Some things finally turned in our favor," said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa. "We got our tails kicked for a couple of days ... and today I think we delivered some blows."

The number of homes destroyed by the fire climbed to 473, but that seemed to reflect a more extensive survey and not additional fire activity. Fire crews said the blaze has charred 15,700 acres but is now 30 percent contained.

Thousands of people remained out of their homes, but the calmer conditions allowed Colorado Springs to lift mandatory evacuation orders.

For the first time since the fire roared through the ponderosa pines Tuesday, some Black Forest residents were able to make a quick visit to their homes Friday to retrieve medicine and belongings.

Two people have died in the fire. Authorities have not yet identified them.

As firefighters rotated shifts and worked to contain the flames, officials combed for clues that might indicate what caused the fire. At this point, investigators believe it likely was human-caused.

"I'm pretty confident that natural causes are out the window," said Maketa, who noted that because of erratic winds, arson investigators were unable to get into the burn area until Thursday.


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Maketa said early Friday that there had been no lightning in the area at the time the fire started, but he said later in the day there was an unconfirmed report of lightning on Tuesday afternoon.

"Until an investigation is complete, I'm not going to speculate," he said.

Investigators sought to pinpoint the origin of the fire by using addresses of houses that were among the first to call 911.

Initial reports indicated the fire began on Shoup Road and Colorado 83 in Black Forest.

"We're going to narrow it down pretty good," Maketa said. "As far as the exact inch of where it started, I'm not sure that's real relevant. We know an area and from there you start looking at what's around there, the burn patterns and whatever is left behind."

The initial investigation, Maketa said, indicates the fire did not start in any type of structure.

"The evidence is going to tell the story and that's what the investigator is trained to do," Maketa said.

Mike Heath, a senior instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center who has overseen investigations of wildfire causes, said the key to winnowing down a point of origin with a wildfire of this size is to first

"What people saw and where they saw it can help narrow the scope of the investigation down to about 5 to 10 acres," Heath said. "From there, it's a science."

Heath said investigators will then trace for fire indicators.

"Machinery, cigarette butts, anything that could be an igniter is likely what this large team of investigators are looking into," Heath said. "But all of that comes from first speaking to witnesses."

Maketa said the arson investigators, who are from the El Paso County Sheriff's department, look into 60 to 70 fires each year.

Less than 20 miles southwest of the Black Forest fire -- and almost a year to the date -- the Waldo Canyon fire erupted in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs. Nearly two weeks after the fire began, coordinates posted on a federal fire-management website and dispatch recordings pinpointed the origin off a hiking trail.

Investigators still have not determined the cause of the Waldo Canyon fire, which until this week was the state's most destructive wildfire -- destroying 346 houses.

Prior to Waldo Canyon in June 2012, a barrage of small wildfires in Teller County were set by an arsonist who has not been arrested.

"To this day, we're still investigating those arson blazes," said Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger.

Ensminger said that as of Friday, his office has not been in contact with El Paso County law enforcement about any possible connections between the investigations.

"At this point, there hasn't been that conversation," Ensminger said.

Heath said it's likely to be an exhaustive investigation into the Black Forest fire.

"No timetable can be set," Heath said. "These fires could be solved weeks from now, months and possibly years. There's just no time frame."

Kurtis Lee: 303-954-1655, klee@denverpost.com or twitter.com/kurtisalee

Other fires

Big Meadows: The blaze on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park has burned about 353 acres and was considered 30 percent contained Friday. The fire is about 5 miles north of Grand Lake.Northern Water officials are concerned that runoff following summer rains will foul Grand Lake with soot and debris and are developing a mitigation plan. Northern Water partially supplies water to 860,000 people in 33 northern Colorado towns and cities. The utility brings water to the Front Range from the Western Slope, and Grand Lake is the main reservoir.

"It's obviously a concern," Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner said. "We've been talking for a couple of years now about our watershed -- what happens if and when it goes up in smoke. We're going to have some impact when the rains come."

The utility also is talking about preventative measures such as anchoring debris booms in the lake to catch some of the sludge if the debris hits hard.

Werner said the fire isn't as bad as it could be. Most likely, any debris washed into the lake will dissipate, settle on the bottom and won't harm the water supply.

Ward Gulch: A fast-moving 300-acre fire, three miles north of Rifle Gap Reservoir was believed to have started by a lightning strike Thursday night, officials said. Fire officials said Friday night the fire was threatening several structures near the fish hatchery and Rifle Mountain Park. A Type III incident management team will take over the fire Friday night or early Saturday.

The blaze is burning rapidly through grass, sage and juniper, fire information officers said. Colorado 325 seven miles north of the city of Rifle and leading into Rifle Gap is closed.