By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Firefighters battling a deadly wildfire in the foothills west of Denver said on Thursday they were gaining ground on the stubborn blaze, as the search continued for a woman who went missing inside the fire zone.
The Lower North Fork Fire, which authorities believe was ignited by a controlled burn that went awry, has killed an elderly couple, scorched 4,140 acres, and destroyed 27 homes.
"Our containment lines continue to grow and we're making good progress," incident commander Rich Harvey told reporters at a Thursday afternoon briefing.
Crews have cut a 3.5-mile perimeter around the fire and it was 45 percent contained on Thursday afternoon, officials said.
Officials said crews were aggressively attacking the flames on Thursday before high winds forecast for the weekend return to the state.
"That's why we're throwing so much at it now," Jacki Kelley, spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, told reporters.
Kelley said search and rescue crews have not located local resident Ann Appel, who has been missing since the fire erupted on Monday afternoon. Crews have combed through some 219 acres surrounding Appel's and have dug through the rubble of her burned-out house.
Residents were allowed into the burn area on Thursday to survey the damage for the first time since the blaze erupted, and most evacuation orders have been lifted.
Governor John Hickenlooper toured the burn area by helicopter in the morning, and later met with residents who lost their homes in the fire, calling the destruction sobering and tragic.
"They've lost everything they own," Hickenlooper said.
The governor, who on Wednesday ordered a temporary ban on prescribed burns on state-owned lands, vowed to thoroughly investigate what went wrong with the prescribed burn conducted by the Colorado State Forest Service.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)