‘Great day’ as evacuations lifted; fight continues against deadly Colorado fire

Story highlights

NEW: The fire, which has burned 17,600 acres, is now 55% contained

Many ordered to evacuate are being allowed to return home, officials say

Some are allowed to go back temporarily to see their charred homes

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Colorado Springs, Colorado CNN  — 

For over a week, officials related grim news on top of grim news about the fast-moving wildfire ravaging Colorado Springs, Colorado – two dead, 346 homes lost, 32,000 forced evacuations, all as crews fought gamely in the face of whipping winds and horrific heat.

Until Sunday, that is.

“We’ve had a great day,” city official Steve Cox said in an afternoon press conference. “We’re going to open up many areas back to the citizens.”

Fire authorities reported Sunday evening that the blaze, which so far burned over 17,600 acres – close to 27 square miles – was 55% contained. That represented a significant improvement from even a few hours earlier, when the fire was 45% contained.

This progress is consistent with officials’ optimistic comments on Sunday, as they chronicled the latest in the fight to corral the deadly and still dangerous fire.

The most positive such development was the decision was to let thousands of people who had been ordered to evacuate back into their homes, beginning at 8 p.m. MT (10 p.m. ET) Sunday.

Some 3,000 still can’t get back in, though Colorado Springs emergency management director Brett Waters noted that figure is 10% of the tally at the fire’s peak.

“We’d ask that (residents return) in an orderly fashion,” Cox said. “Our strategy will be that we continue to shrink that focus area down and down, and get people back in their homes as soon as we can.”

Jerry Forte, the CEO of Colorado Springs Utilities, seconded the city official’s comment in calling Sunday “a good day – and it’s the start of some more good days, we hope.”

All electricity has been restored in the areas where evacuees will be allowed back in, Forte said. Dozens of technicians will hit those areas Monday, to “relight pilot lights, turn on gas and make sure everything is safe within your homes,” according to the utility executive.

Yet the signs of progress don’t change the utter devastation experienced by scores of families, who saw their lives turned upside down by the blaze.

Some returned Sunday, temporarily, to neighborhoods charred in recent days.

Among them was Susan Solich, who is caring for her four young grandsons, whose parents both died in the past year. She drove onto the street where she’d lived for 18 years to find some trees and homes still standing – but not hers.

“I’ve seen pictures, but it didn’t really impact me the way it did, turning into my driveway,” Solich told CNN on Sunday afternoon. “My home was gone, it was imploded into the ground.”

Sallie Clark, El Paso County commissioner, said several organizations have come together to help those affected rebuild their lives, including assembling records.

As for Solich, she said her family won’t leave Colorado but they’re not necessarily putting down roots again in Colorado Springs, either. Their focus for now is taking care of the children and making it through each day, as best they can.

“It won’t be quite the same. It’s kind of like the twilight zone,” she said. “So many of our friends are gone, and they won’t be back.”

Colorado fire victim films her own evacuation

Authorities still haven’t determined what caused the fire, which state officials have called the worst in Colorado history.

Firefighters are being aided by helicopters, air tankers and military planes dropping water and retardant.

The positive news announced Sunday was a sharp turn from what officials told CNN hours earlier, indicating that conditions could be the worst since Tuesday, when the fire exploded and began spreading quickly.

The perimeter has “been staying pretty stable,” said Rich Harvey, incident commander for the fire. But the fire was continuing to move in some places along the inside, he said.

Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey said 24 burglaries of homes and cars have been confirmed in the area affected by the fire.

Linda Burton, who had evacuated her suburban home because of the fire, returned to find it burglarized.

“It’s almost as bad as the house being burned down because you feel violated that there are people out there that prey upon victims that are already suffering,” Burton told CNN affiliate KKTV on Saturday. “I feel like I have been hit by a train.”

Obama tours site of deadly fire in Colorado

The wildfire is one of 11 active blazes in Colorado. Other Western states – including Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah – also are battling wildfires, which is straining regional and national firefighting resources.

Authorities put the cost of fighting the fire at $8.8 million by Saturday night. The U.S. Forest Service has warned it could be mid-July before the Waldo Canyon Fire is fully under control.

As much as the monetary cost, the blaze has also taken a major emotional toll.

Ted and Kate Stefani returned Sunday to what had once been their home. Video they shot, and shared with CNN, showed no structure left to speak of – just a big hole in the ground where their home once stood, except for one stray column from near their front door plus a charred seat from which they’d first spotted flames in the distance.

Yet they, like Solich, said the support of others – from neighbors to the Red Cross to local, state and national officials, including President Barack Obama, who visited last week – have helped them get through the crisis.

“It just still smells like smoke, it’s just pretty sad,” Kate Stefani said. “But the good thing is we have a lot of neighbors whose houses didn’t burn, and they have been out here giving hugs.”

Added her husband Ted, “We’re going to rebuild there. We love that block, we just love that community … And it’s our home.”

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CNN’s Josh Levs, Martin Savidge, Rob Marciano, Chelsea Carter and Melissa Gray contributed to this report.