President Obama surveyed Colorado Springs neighborhoods charred by the deadly Waldo Canyon Fire, the most destructive in state history.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As President Obama arrived in Colorado Springs on Friday to tour the wreckage of the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, fire crews said they were slowly hemming in the blaze and beginning to reopen a few neighborhoods where residents had fled gales of ash and smoke.
Although plumes of smoke still curled skyward from the mountains above Colorado’s second-largest city, local authorities said the 17,000-acre blaze was not spreading and had been 25 percent contained.
In addition, some of the 32,000 people evacuated this week returned home, unloading the suitcases, photo albums and pets they had hurriedly packed up as the fires raced down hillsides.
But as officials reported tentative progress, they also offered a clearer picture of the extent of the damage. At least two bodies were found in a burned home, and up to 10 other people were unaccounted for. At least 346 homes were destroyed. Aerial photographs published by The Denver Post showed blocks of subdivisions reduced to ash and splinters, some homes standing intact while the ones next door were burned flat.
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In some of the worst-hit neighborhoods, which Obama visited, expensive homes had collapsed into heaps of rubble, with only chimneys left standing.
Burned trees stood like charred skeletons, and the shells of abandoned cars squatted in the streets.
“In some of these subdivisions, the devastation is enormous,” Obama said after he walked through the area. “It’s still early in the fires season, and we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Obama declared a national disaster here and in another fire-stricken county in Northern Colorado, making them eligible for federal funds.
He also thanked firefighters at a firehouse and praised volunteers at a YMCA, and said that local officials had made “unprecedented” arrangements with military resources to fight the fires.
“Whether it’s fires in Colorado or flooding in the northern parts of Florida, when natural disasters like this hit, America comes together,” Obama said.
The Colorado Springs blaze, known as the Waldo Canyon Fire, is one of nearly five dozen wildfires raging across the arid West. The unusually fierce early season fires have placed a heavy strain on the government’s firefighting resources, prompting criticism by some Republican politicians that the Forest Service was not moving quickly enough to corral additional large air tankers to douse the blazes.
On Friday, even without rain, fire officials said that lighter breezes and lower temperatures were helping them battle the blaze.
In Northern Colorado, firefighters were struggling to contain a blaze in the foothills outside Fort Collins, home to Colorado State University.
In Western Colorado, a blaze erupted outside Grand Junction along Interstate 70, the state’s major east-west artery, and quickly grew to 16,750 acres, prompting calls for evacuation.
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.