By Keith Coffman
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - The remains of two people killed trying to flee the most destructive Colorado wildfire on record were found on Thursday as crews fought to keep the fierce, wind-driven blaze from roaring into the outskirts of Colorado Springs.
The blaze has ripped across more than 24 square miles of rolling, forested terrain northeast of Colorado Springs since it erupted on Tuesday, forcing some 38,000 people to flee their homes.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said the dead, who have not been publicly identified, were recovered on Thursday from the garage of one of at least 360 homes destroyed by the so-called Black Forest Fire near the state's second-largest city.
Maketa indicated the blaze could be the work of an arsonist or the result of negligence, telling reporters that a criminal investigation was under way. He told Reuters there were no signs of lightning strikes in the area when the fire began.
News of the first two casualties from the monster blaze came as firefighters made their first measurable progress against the fire, managing to carve containment lines around 5 percent of the fire's perimeter.
Maketa said the victims had been on the phone as the flames closed in on their home.
"The person they were speaking with said he could hear popping and cracking in the background and they (the two people) advised they were leaving right now," Maketa said. "We were truly hoping that we could get from day to day without coming across news like this."
With the fire still burning largely unchecked and driven by erratic 30 mile per hour winds that showed no sign of diminishing, officials on Thursday ordered mandatory evacuations of about 1,000 homes in the northern tip of Colorado Springs that were considered to be in imminent danger.
"Load your family, and pets and GO NOW," the El Paso County Sheriff's Office said in a tweet. The area lies just to the east of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
A voluntary evacuation alert was issued for another 2,000 homes in Colorado Springs, advising those residents to be ready to flee at a moment's notice, as embers drifted over the city.
NEIGHBORHOODS WIPED OUT
Aerial photos of devastated areas showed large swaths of obliterated neighborhoods with bare, blackened trees and houses reduced to cinders and rubble. Authorities said 360 homes were ruined and the fate of 79 others was unknown on Thursday evening.
The latest tally of destroyed homes surpassed the previous record of 346 dwellings demolished last year on the northwestern fringe of Colorado Springs by the so-called Waldo Canyon fire, then deemed the most destructive blaze in state history.
That fire also killed two people and prompted the evacuation of some 35,000 people in and around the city, which lies at the eastern foothills of the Rockies about 45 miles south of the state's capital and largest city, Denver.
The Black Forest fire, named for the community near where it began, was the largest of several blazes burning across Colorado, underscoring concerns that persistent drought could intensify this year's fire season in the western United States.
So far, flames from the Black Forest Fire have not damaged properties within the Colorado Springs city limits.
More than 400 firefighters were battling the fire, assisted by helicopters and planes equipped to drop water and fire-retardant chemicals on the flames, and 140 personnel from the Colorado National Guard.
"We're not confident that if the winds changed and pushed the fire to any one of our boundaries that it could be held," Maketa said.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed executive orders on Wednesday declaring "disaster emergencies" that set aside more than $10 million for costs related to the Black Forest Fire and two other blazes in the state.
About 50 miles to the southwest of Black Forest, the Royal Gorge Fire, which also broke out on Tuesday, has burned more than 3,100 acres (1,254 acres), according to tracking site InciWeb.org.
That blaze has forced the closure of one of the state's leading tourist attractions, the Royal Gorge Bridge, and the evacuation of more than 905 inmates from the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Canon City.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Andre Grenon, Gary Hill and Bill Trott)