| COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., June 29
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., June 29 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
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
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
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)