CBSN

Colorado Wildfire Evacuees Anxious to See Homes

Ronda Plywaski and other residents affected by a wildfire outside of Boulder, Colo. attend a town hall style meeting at the Coors Events Center on the Campus of the University of Colorado, Sept. 8, 2010, to get more information on when they can return to their homes.
AP Photo
Updated at 12:05 p.m. ET

Authorities say that a wildfire burning in the foothills near Boulder has destroyed at least 169 houses.

Sheriff's Cmdr. Rick Brough said Thursday that the latest damage toll is based on a survey of 80 percent of the nearly 10 square miles that were burned.

Firefighters say they have contained 30 percent of the fire line, but they warn that flying sparks kicked up by forecast high winds could change that.

Hundreds of evacuated residents are being allowed back to their homes to pick up pets and items left behind, but authorities say they need to leave immediately because of the weather forecast.

Some people have refused to evacuate. Nine people had been reported missing but Brough says all of them have now been accounted for.

Colorado Wildfire Pictures
Barry Petersen on a Community Facing Disaster

The wait will be longer for many of the 3,500 evacuated from about 1,000 homes.

"Many of us have no idea," lamented one resident stuck in a Boulder community center to CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen. "I don't know if my home is standing or not."

At least 169 of those homes have been destroyed, making the blaze one of the most destructive in Colorado's history.

That dire assessment came Wednesday, the same day firefighters were able to contain about 10 percent of the blaze that has scorched about 6,200 acres, or roughly 10 square miles. It was the first time officials reported being able to hold any part of the 20-mile-long fire perimeter.

The reported loss of homes surpasses that of the 2002 Hayman fire in southern Colorado that was the most destructive in the state's history. That fire destroyed 133 homes and 466 outbuildings over 138,000 acres in a more sparsely populated area that includes national forest land.

The Boulder fire's toll is likely to rise as firefighters get a clearer picture of the damage. Four people remained unaccounted for, but no deaths or injuries have been reported.

More than a third of the nation's heavy air firefighting assets -- eight of 19 available air tankers -- are now on this fire, considered the nation's top firefighting priority, reports Petersen (Watch video).

The cause of the fire is being investigated.

"I understand people are angry, they're anxious, they want to go home," Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said during the public meeting. "Please be patient with us."

The anger that has flared as homeowners have shouted questions at officials during news briefings was absent at Wednesday night's gathering. People applauded when speakers mentioned the firefighters. Nine volunteer firefighters have lost their homes.

Firefighters took advantage of cooler temperatures and light rain to attack the wildfire Wednesday and air tankers dumped fire retardant on the flames. A total of 100,000 gallons of retardant has been used and firefighting costs are $2.1 million so far.

Fire managers said as many as 500 firefighters and support personnel are at the fire and more are on the way. Laura McConnell, spokeswoman for the management team, said crews are dealing with downed power lines, debris, poison ivy and rattlesnakes. They also have to be watchful for propane tanks in the area.