Colorado's Black Forest Fire about 55% contained, top official says, progress aided by rain

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (CNN) -- The huge Black Forest Fire in east central Colorado is more than halfway contained, the federal official overseeing the fight said late Saturday.

The news came after hundreds of firefighters went on an offensive, with help from the weather.

Incident commander Rich Harvey said Saturday the people battling the blaze, which had burned more than 16,000 acres north of Colorado Springs, were "ready for it."

The weather helped as some rain, more clouds, and less wind contributed to marked progress Friday. That continued into Saturday, as defined by a few simple measures: no more structures destroyed, no more area burned and more inroads corralling what's left of the fire.

There was a 30% chance of scattered afternoon thunderstorms, the National Weather Service said Sunday.

In the first few days after the fire broke out, crews had zero containment on the Black Forest Fire as it ravaged woods and neighborhoods. County spokesman Dave Rose told CNN it appeared to be the most destructive in the history of Colorado -- a state that's all too familiar with devastating wildfires.

But each of Harvey's updates over Friday and Saturday indicated victories for firefighters, as the percentage of acres where the fire was controlled grew from 5% Friday morning to 55% contained by late Saturday.

What's left behind, in some areas, "looks like a nuclear bomb went off," according to El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa.

As of Saturday afternoon, authorities had counted 473 structures totally lost due to the 4-day-old blaze, with another 17 partially damaged. Two people had died.

The speed and intensity of the flames created a pattern where, for the most part, homes either were destroyed or escaped unscathed, Maketa explained Saturday.

In some areas, he said, there's no number on the house, no mailbox and virtually no other signs that someone lived there just a few days ago.

"You can't even recognize where there was a house or some other kind of structure," the sheriff said. "That is the level of incineration and destruction that took place in some areas."

But things changed for the better Friday. In the morning, the blaze was 5% contained. By evening, it was 30%.

Not just that, but authorities were noticing fewer hotspots and fewer flare-ups than they had in days. All of it was positive news, even as Harvey warned that there's still material sitting on the ground, waiting to be burned, if conditions suddenly change or firefighters let down their guard.

The prospect of progress is all the more appreciated, given the other wildfires still burning in Colorado.

The Royal Gorge Fire, southwest of Colorado Springs, was 40% contained after a week in which it scorched more than 3,200 acres -- including a beloved carousel and at least 20 buildings, according to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

"It's burned to a cinder," he said Friday of the area.

The governor has declared a disaster emergency in Rocky Mountain National Park, northwest of Denver, due to the Big Meadows Fire that's burned hundreds of acres there.

The latest flare-up is the Ward Gulch Fire in the western part of the state. No structures are reported destroyed yet in that blaze, but gusty winds, low humidity and warm weather have firefighters on edge.

While all those fires pose dangers in their own ways, the Black Forest Fire is still by far the biggest and the most dangerous -- which is why thousands in that area remain evacuated, because their homes remain in areas where it is too perilous to return.

"It's been a pretty good emotional roller coaster," said Chris Schroeder, who lives in the Black Forest Fire evacuation zone and now has little to do except hope and wait.

Getting him and others off that wild ride, by saving their homes, remains the primary mission of those on the front lines of the blaze.

More than 1,000 personnel -- more than at any point this week -- were part of the firefighting effort Saturday. They included boots on the ground, as well as helicopters and tankers overhead.

Said Maketa: "We're hoping to gain inches each day to get people's lives back to normal, where it can be returned to normal."

CNN's George Howell reported from Colorado Springs, and Greg Botelho wrote in Atlanta.

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