Calmer winds were in the forecast and authorities hoped to dump two to three times the amount of fire retardant from the air than they did Monday, when gusty winds grounded air tankers for much of the day, Boulder County sheriff's Cmdr. Rick Brough said. However, most tankers were still grounded at midday because heavy smoke made it difficult for pilots to see their targets although at least one was spotted dropping slurry earlier in the day.
Brett Haberstick, a fire marshal with the Sunshine Fire Protection District, said Monday the fire destroyed dozens of homes, but Brough had no exact figures Tuesday.
The blaze broke out in Four Mile Canyon northwest of Boulder and rapidly spread across 5 1/2 square miles, or 3,500 acres. Erratic 45-mph gusts sometimes sent the fire in two directions at once. Brough said there is no indication it was intentionally set.
Crews managed to save the historic town of Gold Hill, including an Old West grocery store and structures once used for stagecoach stops. Firefighters had to relocate their engines and equipment several times to avoid the flames.
Four homes belonging to firefighters were destroyed. Those firefighters were allowed to leave to attend to their families and personal affairs, said Laura McConnell, a spokeswoman for the fire management team.
Nancy Engellenner and husband Philip Helper assume their house was lost because so much was destroyed in the surrounding area. "The way the wind was, it was just spitting flames everywhere," Engellenner said.
Resident David Myers also feared his house burned after he fled. At one point, he said heavy smoke obscured flames from the fire but he could still hear it, sounding like a cross between a freight train and a long roll of thunder.
"You can hear the crackling, you can hear just this consumption of fuel, just crackling and burning. And at that point, it was time to go," he said.
The lack of information about the fire damage frustrated residents who gathered for a morning briefing.
"There's no information about anything ... I am so frustrated," said Ronda Plywaski. She said that she, her husband and their two German shepherds, Loki and Doba, left their home Monday after getting a reverse 911 call. They spent the night at the evacuation center at Colorado University.
"I just want to know if my house is OK," she said.
After the briefing, evacuees stood in small groups exchanging stories and information. Some hugged; others wiped away tears.
On Monday, winds pushed the fire through three canyons where pine trees have been left prone to fire by disease, drought and beetles that burrow under the bark of pine trees, fire managers said. Such beetles have killed more than 3.5 million acres of trees in Colorado and southeastern Wyoming.
The evacuation was hampered by a failure of the county's automated phone alert system. Brough said the system was down for about two hours Monday, leaving authorities to rely on the media to get out word of the fire.
"Whether they fixed it or healed itself, we don't know," Brough said of the system.