* Early damage reports say 346 homes lost in blaze
* Colorado's Waldo Canyon fire only 5 percent contained
(Updates with preliminary property loss figures)
By Keith Coffman
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., June 28 A fierce
Colorado wildfire that has forced the evacuation of some 35,000
people while raging for six days at the edge of the state's
second-most populous city has destroyed 346 homes, Mayor Steve
Bach said on Thursday, citing preliminary damage reports.
If those figures hold up, the tally of lost homes in and
around Colorado Springs would make the so-called Waldo Canyon
Fire the state's most destructive on record, surpassing the 257
homes consumed in recent weeks by a much larger blaze north of
Denver near Fort Collins.
Authorities earlier acknowledged the loss of hundreds of
homes in Tuesday's firestorm, but the damage toll released by
the mayor at an afternoon news conference on Thursday gave the
first firm picture of the full extent of the devastation.
The grim news came as lighter winds helped firefighters
battling to contain the inferno that had roared unchecked
through residential neighborhoods in the northwestern corner of
Colorado Springs and nibbled at the fringe of the U.S. Air Force
For the first time since the blaze erupted on Saturday, a
red-flag warning for heightened fire hazards was lifted for the
Colorado Springs area.
"It definitely increases their (firefighters') morale
because it means they can work safer, it means that they can
most likely get more done today," said fire information officer
As of Thursday, however, the Waldo Canyon blaze remained
mostly untamed, with fire crews managing to carve containment
lines around just 5 percent of its perimeter, officials said.
Searing temperatures and strong, erratic winds in recent
days stoked the 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.
Firefighters on Wednesday pushed back a spot fire in a
vacant corner of the Air Force Academy, but some residential
neighborhoods in and around Colorado Springs were harder hit.
"There was nothing left in some areas, burned-out
foundations that were smoldering. It looked like a nuclear
weapon had been dropped. It's as close to hell as I could
imagine," said Bachafter touring the heavily damaged Mountain
Colorado wildfires have killed four people this year in what
the governor called "the worst fire season" in state history. No
injuries from the Waldo Canyon fire have been reported.
"Yesterday was a good day, and firefighters have made
progress," incident commander Rich Harvey told a news briefing.
"Now we're going to go after it aggressively."
More than 1,200 personnel, supported by heavy air tankers
and helicopters, are assigned to the blaze, Harvey said.
Despite the blaze, the Air Force Academy welcomed over 1,000
new cadets, taking them to a part of the facility far from the
smoke, said Academy spokesman Harry Lundy said.
President Barack Obama plans to visit the Colorado Springs
area on Friday to meet with firefighters and tour the ravaged
(Additional reporting by Ellen Miller; Writing by Alex
Dobuzinskis; Editing by Tim Gaynor and Christopher Wilson)