BOULDER, Colo. - Thousands of evacuated residents, including former FEMA chief Michael D. Brown, began returning to their homes Thursday after firefighters gained control over a wildfire near Denver that destroyed two houses and several outbuildings.
Brown told The Associated Press that his house was spared, but he watched firefighters battle the blaze about a half-mile from his home.
Crews had fully contained the 3,700-acre fire zone about 25 miles northwest of Denver by Thursday night, but about 20 firefighters planned to monitor the site overnight to suppress flare-ups. The fire blackened mostly grassland north and west of the city of Boulder, an area of scattered subdivisions, farms and ranches along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
"I'm shaking and I'm so grateful we have our homes and our pets," said Darlene Steiner, as she inspected her home north of Boulder following an overnight evacuation that affected an estimated 3,000 people. Steiner walked arm in arm with a friend, checking on neighbors and gazing at the burned landscape.
At least 1,300 homes were evacuated Wednesday and two were destroyed, county Sheriff's Cmdr. Phil West said. The evacuation order was lifted Thursday evening.
West estimated that within the 3,700-acre fire zone, about 1,400 acres — a little more than 2 square miles — had actually burned.
Two firefighters and a police officer suffered minor injuries.
"The fact that no one was killed or seriously injured and the fact that we lost two homes in a wind-driven event like this is miraculous," Sheriff Joe Pelle said. "The effort to suppress this wildfire once the winds died down last night was exhausting and downright heroic."
Garry Briese, the Denver-based regional director for FEMA, also credited years of work to protect neighborhoods by outlawing wood shingles and encouraging homeowners to keep flammable landscaping away from their homes.
"It was an overnight miracle that was 15 years in the making," said Briese, a former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Some 200 firefighters lit backfires overnight to starve the blaze. They saved several homes from destruction, Pelle said.
The cause of the fire, which started Wednesday, was under investigation, though officials believed wind gusts reaching 80 mph likely downed power lines.
Brown said he was prepared with a "go kit" stuffed with medication and cash that was left over from his FEMA tenure when he was called out on disasters. He was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 2003 until he resigned amid criticism after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"We never think of the fact that something like this can happen," Brown said. "One minute I'm sitting in my office and the next there is a deputy in my driveway telling me I have to leave."
Christy Cramer, a horse trainer, spent six hours Wednesday evacuating 42 horses from the Joder Ranch.
"I called all of my friends with big horse trailers," Cramer said. "The flames were right next to my truck. It was very, very, very scary."
Seven horses were found safe at the ranch Thursday, including one standing in a burned pen, Cramer said.
Neighbors helped Bobra Goldsmith, 78, round up more than 160 llamas and alpacas on her Rocky Mountain Llamas ranch. The retired University of Colorado professor lost her house in the fire.
"My mother was an artist," Goldsmith told the Daily Camera newspaper. "The house was filled with her work. I can't tell you what I've lost."