Renee Seay looks June 18 into the basement of her father's house and what was her childhood home. Dick Hoffman lost his home in the Black Forest Fire in Colorado. (Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette via AP)
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DENVER — Bob and Barbara Schmidt dashed to their home on a dirt road in a heavily wooded area northeast of Colorado Springs as smoke from what would become the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history filled the air.
After quickly grabbing a few items, they spotted their neighbors.
“They were sitting on their porch, watching TV,” said Bob Schmidt, adding his wife urged their neighbors to immediately flee as smoke rolled in at 4:35 p.m. June 11. “They said they’d leave when they needed to.”
Marc and Robin Herklotz told the Schmidts they hadn’t gotten automated calls from authorities ordering them to evacuate and that, while they were packing and monitoring the approaching blaze on TV, they weren’t panicking.
On Tuesday, authorities announced that the lone casualties of the Black Forest Fire were the Herklotzes, whose bodies were found in their garage on Jicarilla Drive by their car, as if they were trying to flee.
The fire has destroyed more than 500 homes and charred more than 22 square miles. It was 85 percent contained Tuesday.
In California, officials said it was an unattended campfire near a main route into Yosemite National Park that grew into a blaze that led to the evacuations of 1,500 people from 800 homes. Nearly half of those people were allowed to return as firefighters gained ground late Tuesday.
A wind-whipped wildfire in Arizona grew to nearly 8 square miles by Tuesday evening and was within 400 yards of some homes west of Prescott, authorities said. Hundreds of homes and people have been evacuated by the so-called Doce Fire, which began shortly before noon Tuesday.
In Colorado, Bob Schmidt said he had received a call June 11 telling him to leave immediately but that the Herklotzes said they did not get such a call. Their homes lay just outside the mandatory evacuation boundary announced on Twitter by the El Paso County at 3:34 p.m. that day. The zone was expanded to include Jicarilla Drive at 5:36 p.m.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said that someone had spoken to the Herklotzes on the phone at about 5 p.m. and heard a popping sound — most likely the fire racing through the thick trees.
Marc Allen Herklotz, 52, and Robin Lauran Herklotz, 50, worked at Air Force Space Command, which operates military satellites, and were based at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, the Air Force said in a written statement. He entered the Air Force in 1983 but most recently was working as a civilian employee, and his wife was an Air Force contractor.
The couple lived in a 3-bedroom house assessed at $281,000, according to property records. Schmidt said the Herklotzes were fixtures in the area, walking their dog every night and coming by to get eggs laid by the chickens Schmidt and his wife kept. A few weeks ago, he said, they worked filling in potholes on the narrow dirt cul de sac where they all lived.
“They loved the forest,” Schmidt said of the couple.
Investigators continued searching Tuesday for clues to what started the wildfire. Authorities don’t believe natural causes are to blame but haven’t elaborated on a possible cause.
They concentrated on a 40-foot-by-40-foot area but haven’t said whether they think the fire was started accidentally or on purpose.
Maketa said that additional home loss is not anticipated, though the count would likely rise.
“What you’re seeing today is not new damage,” the sheriff said.