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June 19, 2013

Neighbors: Couple killed waited for order to leave

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 that his wife urged their neighbors to immediately flee as smoke rolled in at 4:35 p.m. on June 11. “They said they’d leave when they needed to.”

The couple, 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.

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 three-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.

The Black Forest Fire has destroyed more than 500 homes and charred more than 22 square miles. It was 85 percent contained Wednesday and crews are hoping to have it fully contained Thursday. However, expected high winds and hot weather across much of Colorado and the Southwest will work against them. It will also make it easier for new fires to spread in the region.

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.

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.

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. About 400 to 500 remained evacuated Wednesday. Crews have stopped the fire’s forward progress and it was about 40 percent contained.

A wind-whipped wildfire in Arizona grew to nearly 11 square miles by Wednesday morning. Hundreds of homes and people west of Prescott have been evacuated by the Doce Fire, which began shortly before noon Tuesday.

 

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