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Hotter, drier day testing Colorado fire crews

A day after firefighters made great progress against the fire outside Colorado Springs, hotter and drier conditions on Saturday made for a major test.
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

A day after firefighters made great progress against the fire outside Colorado Springs, hotter and drier conditions on Saturday made for a major test.

"Today is going to be our test day," Jerri Marr of the U.S. Forest Service said at a morning briefing.

"Fire activity is expected to increase today and tomorrow," the incident command said in its written update. "Possible afternoon thunderstorms could also bring strong, gusty winds. Temperatures are expected to reach at least 15 degrees above season normal."

The 26-square-mile Waldo Canyon fire, one of many burning across the West, is now 30 percent contained, up from 15 percent early Friday.

More than 150 National Guard soldiers and airmen are helping Colorado Springs police staff roadblocks and patrol streets after a deadly wildfire killed two people and destroyed nearly 350 homes.

Police Chief Pete Carey said Saturday the presence of military personnel will allow his department to resume normal police work in the rest of the city.

"We're grateful for the help," he said.

About 10,000 people remain evacuated on Saturday, down from 35,000 at the fire's peak.

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - JUNE 30: Destroyed homes sit beside a home left untouched by fire in a neighborhood affected by the Waldo Canyon fire on June 30, 2012 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The massive fire, which has eased with the help of cooler temperatures and lighter winds, has destroyed hundreds of homes and forced more than 35,000 people to flee. The fire was estimated at 17,073 acres and was 25 precent contained with some evacuees being let back into their neighborhoods. A second body has been located in a burned home while others are still reported missing. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)Spencer Platt / Getty Images North America

Investigators haven't been able to visit the area where the fire broke out on June 23 to determine the cause.

Two bodies were found in the ruins of one house. The victims' names haven't been released.

Police say fewer than 10 people may be unaccounted for.

There were plans to let people whose residences burned take weekend bus trips to the affected neighborhoods to take a look, but they would not be allowed to leave the vehicles.

After growing explosively earlier in the week, the Colorado Springs fire gained no ground overnight, authorities reported Friday. And the weather was clear and mostly calm, a welcome break from the lightning and high wind that drove the flames.

Exhausted firefighters fresh off the front lines described the devastation in some neighborhoods and the challenges of battling such a huge blaze, now the most destructive in Colorado history.

"It looks like hell. I would imagine it felt like a nuclear bomb went off. There was fire everywhere. Everything had a square shape to it because it was foundations," said Rich Rexach, who had been working 12-hour days since Tuesday, when flames swept through neighborhoods in this city of more than 400,000 people 60 miles south of Denver.

President Barack Obama toured the stricken areas Friday after issuing a disaster declaration for Colorado that frees up federal funds. He thanked firefighters and other emergency workers, saying: "The country is grateful for your work. The country's got your back."

As residents waited anxiously to see what was left of their homes, police reported several burglaries in evacuated areas, along with break-ins of cars packed with evacuees' possessions outside hotels. Carey said Friday a person wearing protective fire gear in an evacuated area was arrested on charges of impersonating a firefighter and influencing a public official.

Community leaders began notifying residents Thursday that their homes were destroyed. Many lost almost everything.

"The blanket that was on my bed when I grew up, a bunch of things my mother had made," said Rick Spraycar, listing what he lost when his house in the hard-hit Mountain Shadows subdivision burned down. "It's hard to put it into words. Everything I owned. Memories."

For Ernie Storti the pain of knowing that his was one of a handful of homes spared in his neighborhood was hard.

"Our home was standing, and everything south of us was gone," he said as tears streamed down his face outside a Red Cross Shelter where he had met with insurance agents.

Authorities were still trying to figure out what caused the fire. They said conditions were improving and they hoped experts would soon be able to work to determine a cause.

More than 1,200 personnel and six helicopters were fighting the fire.

All eight Air Force firefighting planes from four states will be at Colorado Springs' Peterson Air Force Base Saturday and available to fight the fire, marking the first time the entire fleet has been activated since 2008, Col. Jerry Champlin said.

Among the fires elsewhere in the West:

  • Wyoming: A wildfire in a sparsely populated area of southeastern Wyoming exploded from eight square miles to nearly 58 square miles in a single day in hot, windy weather. Authorities said Saturday the Arapaho Fire has some structures but the area is still too dangerous to allow a detailed survey.
  • Idaho: At least 60 homes near Pocatello, Idaho, burned in a fast-moving wildfire that started Thursday evening. The blaze covered more than 1½ square miles. Officials said it was human-caused but gave no details.
  • Utah: Residents of nearly a thousand homes in Herriman, just southwest of Salt Lake City, were under an evacuation order Saturday after a wildfire burned through the area, destroying at least four houses and several other structures, authorities said. Fire crews appeared to have the 350-acre Rose Crest fire at bay Friday evening. A 70-square-mile wildfire in Utah's Sanpete County destroyed at least 160 structures, more than 50 of them primary homes. A similar sized blaze in Utah was threatening about 75 structures.
  • Montana: Residents of eastern and central Montana who evacuated due to wildfires are returning to find neighborhoods scorched and many houses reduced to piles of ash. Fire officials said Friday that 70 homes burned in the 20,000-acre Dahl fire south of Roundup. At least two dozen structures were reported burned in a 270-square-mile fire in the Ashland.

Authorities battling six wildfires in Utah said Colorado was taking most of the available fire crews, leaving them short-handed.

Utah fire commander Cheto Olais said leaders at one Utah blaze had requested about 200 additional firefighters but will probably get no more than 20. "A lot of assets are going to Colorado," Olais said.

"We're strapped nationally," he told The Associated Press. "There's only so many firefighters, and they're already out in the field."