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Obama views Colorado wildfire devastation, notes 'progress'

June 29, 2012|By Michael Muskal

A visibly stunned President Obama toured parts of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Friday, praising the efforts of firefighters after viewing the melted cars and destroyed homes from the state’s most destructive wildfire.

In a whirlwind tour, the president said officials have made progress in dealing with the blaze, known as the Waldo Canyon fire. An estimated 346 homes have been destroyed, at least one fatality has been reported and tens of thousands of people were ordered to flee their homes.

“We’re starting to see progress,” Obama said in televised remarks. “Obviously, as you saw in some of these subdivisions, the devastation is enormous and our thoughts and prayers go out to all of the families.”

PHOTOS: U.S. wildfires 2012

Obama, who arrived on Air Force One from Washington in the afternoon, praised the coordination of local and federal responders dealing with the fire, first reported Saturday.

"Whether it’s fires in Colorado or flooding in the northern parts of Florida,” said Obama, referring to the damage from Tropical Storm Debby, which struck Florida earlier in the week, “when natural disasters like this hit, America comes together.... We’ve got to make sure that we have each other's backs.”

The Waldo Canyon fire has burned 16,750 acres and is about 15% contained, officials said Friday. The fire, which has already cost more than $5.2 million to fight, isn't expected to be fully contained until July 16.

At the fire's peak, evacuation orders were issued to about 32,000 people in the city and surrounding areas.  At a Friday morning news conference, city officials said about 8,500 evacuees have been allowed to return home, with about 22,000 believed to be still evacuated.

Obama shook hands with firefighters while standing in front of a destroyed house amid the smell of burned wood and fuel, according to pool reports from the scene. He pointed to a few homes, and the firefighters explained how some of the fires started in the garages, where peoples' parked cars burst into flames.

Obama appeared stunned by the damage. In front of him were a melted Ford Taurus and a Toyota Rav-4.

“I tell you what, those families, you made a difference in their lives,” Obama said to the firefighters. “You have a house that's cinders. Next to it, it's untouched,” he said of two houses -- one spared by the fire and one destroyed.

Obama has already declared a “major disaster” and promised federal aid to Colorado, considered a swing state in the November election. Obama easily carried the state four years ago, as did President George W. Bush in 2004.

Wearing light beige khaki pants, and a light blue button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Obama was greeted by top officials, including Gov. John Hickenlooper and Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach, when Air Force One touched down.

Later, Obama went to visit Colorado Springs Fire Station No. 9 to thank firefighters and first responders who had recently come off 12-hour shifts fighting at the Waldo Canyon fire, named for a popular local hiking trail. The president shook hands with two lines of about 50 firefighters in yellow fire-proof pants and Navy blue shirts reading "Colorado FIRE Springs" or "Wescott Fire Department."

"We're not completely out of the woods yet," Obama said, adding that people are working 18-hour days to fight the fire.

"We can provide all the resources," the president said ...”what we can't do is provide them with the courage and the determination and professionalism" to fight the fires, he said of firefighters and first responders, calling them all  "genuine heroes."

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Join Michael on Google+. Email: michael.muskal@latimes.com

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