Colorado fire devastation 'heartbreaking,' Obama says

Image: US President Barack Obama tours the Moun
President Barack Obama tours the devastated Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Friday.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: msnbc.com

President Barack Obama toured a devastated neighborhood in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Friday, praising the courage of fire crews and calling it heartbreaking to see so many homes destroyed.

Obama toured the Mountain Shadows subdivision, which saw the worst damage, stopping at times to talk to fire crews.

"This has been a devastating early fire season for Colorado," he told reporters with him, and "heartbreaking for these families" who lost their homes. Obama earlier signed a federal disaster order to release more resources.

A second body was found on Friday, the Colorado Springs Police Department confirmed. It was discovered in the same debris of a burned-out home that a body -- the first fatality of the fire -- was found Thursday evening. Neither victim has been identified.

Lighter winds and lower temperatures Friday were helping crews contain the fire, which became the most destructive in Colorado history by consuming 347 homes.

The progress was tempered by the fact that bone-dry conditions and high temperatures across the West continue as summer gets started.

In the Rockies region alone, 32 new fires, two of them large, were reported Thursday, the National Interagency Fire Center said in its daily report.

Moreover, the 1-5 scale used by the center to rate fire danger and preparedness was raised from 3 to 4.

This makes for only the third time in the last 20 years the nation has reached this level by late June, the Associated Press reported. The others were in 2008 and 2002, another highly destructive year for wildfires in Colorado and the Southwest.

"This is one of the busier Junes we've had in quite a while," Kari Boyd-Peak, a NIFC spokeswoman, told the AP.

While all resources requested are currently being provided, she said, shortages can't be ruled out if the weather doesn't cooperate. "If conditions stay this way, and we get more fires, and these get worse, we could get to that point soon," she said.

Of roughly 15,000 firefighting personnel nationwide, more than 8,800 have been deployed.

In Colorado Springs, where more than 1,000 crews are deployed, a preliminary report indicates that 347 homes were destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire, Mayor Steve Bach said Thursday. The count isn't final and the numbers may change.

The fire is now 25 percent contained and the cause hasn't been determined, though investigators are looking into whether it was lightning, an accident or arson.

Bach toured the heavily damaged Mountain Shadows subdivision on Thursday. "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," Bach said after the morning tour.

On Wednesday, mandatory evacuations were ordered for the 3,000 people in the town of Crystola and part of Woodland Park after more than 32,000 people had to flee on Tuesday.

Those evacuation orders came as the fire moved down a ridge toward those homes, the Gazette reported, citing communications from an emergency services scanner. "It's huge," said the voice over the scanner. "I would estimate two-three miles in width."

Tuesday night, the community of Mountain Shadows appeared to be enveloped in an orange glow.

Nationwide, 47 large, active wildfires were being fought Friday. The bulk of them were in 10 western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

Colorado's second most-destructive blaze is the 136-square-mile High Park Fire, which  destroyed 257 homes and killed one woman.

Triggered by lightning on June 9, it is nearly fully contained and about 1,900 people were allowed back into their homes on Thursday.

In De Beque, western Colorado, 50 people evacuated Thursday as a 15-square-mile blaze threatened to cross Interstate 70. A 13-mile stretch was closed overnight and intermittent closures were expected throughout Friday.

The number of fires and acreage burned nationwide is still below the 10-year average, but that gap has been narrowing in recent weeks.

Reports from other wildfires:

  • In Montana, eight separate fires have leveled close to 100 homes and other structures. The biggest losses were near Roundup, where 64 buildings, half of them homes, were destroyed. Hundreds of people were evacuated.
  • In Utah, one fire destroyed at least 56 structures and continues to burn with just 20 percent containment. A smaller fire near St. George forced some residents to evacuate. Now 60 percent contained, the fire was burning about three miles north of Zion National Park. At least eight structures were destroyed.
  • In Wyoming, a wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest has grown to nearly 36 square miles.