President Obama boards Air Force One in Colorado Springs, Colo., after… (Ed Andrieski / Associated…)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As thousands of evacuees were allowed to return to their homes in this fire-scorched area, President Obama on Friday surveyed neighborhoods charred to ruins by the deadly Waldo Canyon blaze, the most destructive in state history, saying that the “devastation is enormous.”
The president toured the Mountain Shadows area, where melted cars sat in driveways and rows of homes were burned to their foundations. At last count, 347 homes had been lost. The death toll rose to two Friday after a body was found inside the same burned-down home where remains were earlier discovered.
While visiting a YMCA evacuation shelter, Obama told those gathered that “everyone all across the country has Colorado Springs’ back.”
PHOTOS: U.S. wildfires 2012
Obama’s visit came as more favorable weather conditions allowed firefighters to made progress against the monster blaze that has had the city on the edge of panic since last weekend.
About 12,000 people — roughly a third of the mass evacuation Tuesday night when the wildfire exploded over a mountain ridge near town — were allowed to return to their homes. About 17,000 remained under evacuation orders as the fire threat still lingered and firefighters had 25% containment on the estimated 16,750-acre blaze. Authorities have not said when the thousands of other evacuees would be allowed to return home.
Frustrations grew among the displaced.
Dick and Charla Bertrand had been evacuated even though their Colorado Springs home is several miles away from the fire lines. They have been sleeping on cots in the Cheyenne Mountain High School gymnasium, where the American Red Cross set up a shelter for displaced residents.
“What was frustrating was people that were just down the street got to go back and we didn’t, and we don’t understand why,” Dick Bertrand said. “But that’s the way it is.”
Their neighbor, Elizabeth Garcia, was in the same predicament: suspecting her condominium was undamaged but unable to return and check it out.
“I’ve been told I have the patience of Job, but I’ve never been tested like this,” said Garcia, 47, who was staying in the high school gym with her college-age son.
Late Friday afternoon authorities said they were scheduling Sunday bus tours for about 4,000 people whose homes were destroyed or damaged.
“We are just pleading with people to have some patience as we work through this,” said Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown, who warned that shifting winds could still turn the fire back into populated areas.
The only hotel Teresa and Dale Farmer could find was about 50 miles from home in Pueblo, where a number of other displaced residents sought refuge.
They fled Tuesday with Dale’s 73-year-old mother and their dog, the air thick with smoke as a ridge above their home roared with flames and hot ash fell from an orange sky. Three days later they were eager to get back to inspect their home for damage.
“It sounds as though we have a house there, but that’s all we know,” Dale Farmer said.
Full containment is not expected until mid-July. The cause is still under investigation.
The state’s other major fires, the High Park fire west of Fort Collins and the Flagstaff fire outside Boulder, appeared headed for containment by the weekend.
Until this week the High Park fire ranked as the most destructive in Colorado history, destroying 259 homes. As of Friday afternoon that blaze, at 87,284 acres, was 85% contained, with full containment projected for Sunday.
Colorado Springs officials broke the bad news to hundreds of families who lost homes in the Waldo Canyon fire at an emotional meeting Thursday evening on the University of Colorado campus.
Among them were Byron and Rebekah Largent, who managed to grab only a few essentials — some clothing, a laptop, files and photos — before the fire raged through their neighborhood and destroyed their rented home Tuesday, their daughter’s first birthday.
The married couple offered support to friends and neighbors as they began to grieve and reassemble their lives.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Byron Largent said. “You lose some things that you can’t replace, but as long as you’re alive — and we got our daughter out, us out — what else matters?”
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