COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., June 29 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama planned to tour on Friday the devastation left by a Colorado wildfire that destroyed 346 homes and forced the evacuation of 35,000 people from the edge of the state's second-largest city.
Obama was due to arrive in Colorado Springs just before noon local time to visit the areas ravaged by what officials have deemed to be the most destructive blaze in state history. At least one death has been attributed to the fire.
The blaze had roared unchecked on Tuesday night through communities in the northwestern corner of the city and threatened the U.S. Air Force Academy campus. But the lighter winds that helped firefighters gain new ground against the inferno on Thursday were expected to continue on Friday, fire officials said at a news conference.
They said the wildfire did not grow overnight and it is now 15 percent contained.
Aerial photos of devastation unleashed by the so-called Waldo Canyon Fire showed large swaths of neighborhoods reduced to gray ash - one house after another obliterated while adjacent dwellings survived mostly unscathed.
Authorities initially acknowledged the loss of hundreds of homes, but the damage toll released Thursday afternoon by Mayor Steve Bach - a preliminary count of 346 houses gutted by fire - confirmed the full extent of destruction.
Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey said a body was found in the debris of a burned-out home, marking the first known death from the now six-day-old blaze. The person became the fifth killed this year in a Colorado wildfire season described by the governor as the worst ever in the state.
The tally of homes consumed by the Waldo Canyon blaze ranks as the most on record, surpassing the 257 homes destroyed in recent weeks by a much larger blaze north of Denver near Fort Collins. (Graphic of fires: link.reuters.com/cet98s)
RASH OF WILDFIRES ACROSS COUNTRY
Waldo Canyon was among more than 40 large, uncontained wildfires being fought across the United States, the bulk of them in 10 western states - Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, South Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and even Hawaii, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Searing temperatures and strong, erratic winds in recent days stoked the Waldo Canyon blaze, which has burned at least 18,500 acres (7,487 hectares) of timber and brush, much of it in the Pike National Forest to the west of the city that lies at the base of the famed Pikes Peak mountaintop.
For the first time since the fire erupted on Saturday, a red-flag warning for heightened fire hazards was lifted for the Colorado Springs area on Thursday.
But anguish and frustration ran high among many of the estimated 35,000 residents who had to be evacuated from homes.
"You don't have the authority to keep me out of my house," David Dougherty, 45, a retired member of the Armed Forces, shouted out during a news conference. "I understand they're trying to save lives, but some of us don't need to be saved."
Dougherty said he believed his dwelling was still intact and wanted to be let back in to the evacuation zone to secure his home and his belongings. Police reported at least two arrests for burglary in an evacuated neighborhood.
SOME EVACUEES RETURN, OTHERS LEFT HOMELESS
While authorities began allowing some evacuees to return beginning at 8 p.m. local time Thursday, hundreds of residents from neighborhoods caught in the heart of Tuesday's firestorm met privately with city officials on the campus of the University of Colorado to learn the fate of their homes.
Byron Largent, 26, and his wife, Rebekah, 31, who fled with their year-old daughter, Emma, on the first day of the fire, emerged from the meeting saying their worst fears had been confirmed: the house where little Emma took her first steps two weeks ago was gone.
The Waldo Canyon blaze remained formidable. Fire crews had managed to carve containment lines around just 15 percent of its perimeter by Thursday afternoon - a fraction of the fire zone although still double the previous day's total, officials said.
More than 1,200 firefighters, supported by heavy air tankers and helicopters dropping flame-retardant chemicals, had been assigned to the blaze, incident commander Rich Harvey said.
The cause of the Waldo Canyon Fire remained under investigation. The FBI's Denver office said on Thursday its agents were working closely with local, state and federal law enforcement "to determine if any of the wild land fires resulted from criminal activity".
The fire menacing Colorado Springs follows a recent string of suspected arson fires in a neighboring county, but officials said they had no indication that the Waldo Canyon blaze was deliberately set.
Although federal authorities say the fire season got off to an early state in parts of the Northern Rockies, the number of fires and acreage burned nationwide is still below the 10-year average for this time of year, according to fire agency records.
In Montana alone, eight separate fires have leveled close to 100 structures. The biggest losses were near the town of Roundup, north of Billings, where 64 buildings, half of them homes, were destroyed. Hundreds of people were evacuated. (Additional reporting by Joseph O'Leary; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Philip Barbara)