P. SOLOMON BANDA and THOMAS PEIPERT
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - A raging Colorado wildfire that forced tens of thousands to flee destroyed an estimated 346 homes this week, making it the most destructive fire in the state's history, officials said.
From above, the destruction becomes painfully clear: Rows and rows of houses were reduced to smoldering ashes even as some homes just feet away survived largely intact.
On one street, all but three houses had burned to their foundations, said Ryan Schneider, whose home is still standing in a neighborhood where 51 others were destroyed.
"I was real happy at first. My wife was happy," he said. "The emotion of seeing the other homes, though, was instant sadness."
While the aerial photos showed the scope of one of the worst fires to hit the American West in decades, they did little to help ease the concerns of many residents who still did not know the fate of homes.
Amid the devastation in the foothills of Colorado Springs, there were hopeful signs. Flames advancing on the U.S. Air Force Academy were stopped and cooler conditions could help slow the fire.
Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach said the 346 estimate could change. A fire in northern Colorado, which is still burning, destroyed 257 homes and until Thursday was the most destructive in state history.
For now, Bach said, the news of the destruction would make it very difficult for the city about 60 miles south of Denver.
"This is going to be a tough evening, but we're going to get through it," Bach said. "This community is going to surround them with love and encouragement ... We will move forward as a community."
More than 30,000 people frantically packed up belongings Tuesday night as the flames swept through their neighborhoods. While there's no indication yet the blaze claimed any lives, fire officials said they would search each home looking for possible remains.
Community officials were planning to begin the process of notifying residents Thursday that their homes were destroyed. For many residents, the official notification was a formality.
Residents recognize their street on aerial pictures and carefully scrutinize the images to determine the damage. Photos and video from The Associated Press and the Denver Post showed widespread damage.
Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city, is home to the U.S. Olympic Training Center, NORAD and the Air Force Space command, which operates military satellites. They were not threatened.
Conditions were still too dicey to allow authorities to begin trying to figure out what sparked the blaze that has raged for much of the week and already burned more than 29 square miles.
President Barack Obama was to tour fire-stricken areas Friday as hundreds of locals and some tourists who were staying at Red Cross shelters hoped life would return to normal. Other stayed with friends and family.
Bill and Lois Bartlett said they believe their neighborhood was spared, but remained wary as they waited at a YMCA shelter set up by the Red Cross.
"I've been through a lot of stuff like this before but not in civilian life," said Bill Bartlett, who flew B-17 bombers during World War II.
His wife Lois said the Red Cross bought them two special cots to make them more comfortable but still found staying at the shelter difficult. "You don't have any privacy. You can't look at TV and get the news," she said.
The weather forecast offered some optimism for firefighters to make progress, with the temperature expected to reach into the mid-80s - about 5 degrees cooler than Wednesday - and humidity 15 to 20 percent, about 5 points higher. Winds were forecast to be 10 to 15 mph.
As of mid-day Thursday, the fire was only 10 percent contained. The cost of fighting the blaze had already reached $3.2 million.
The fire blackened up to 50 acres along the southwest boundary of the Air Force Academy campus, said Anne Rys-Sikora, a spokeswoman for the firefighters. No injuries or damage to structures - including the iconic Cadet Chapel - were reported.
Fort Carson, an Army infantry post about 15 miles from the academy, sent 120 soldiers along with bulldozers and other heavy equipment to help clear a line to stop the fire on the academy. Rys-Sikora said the academy was not getting a disproportionate share of equipment and firefighters.
The Flying W Ranch, a popular tourist attraction near Colorado Springs, was severely damaged in the blaze. But authorities let people into the area to check on cattle. John Hendrix, who volunteers at the Flying W, said 47 animals were accounted for.
"Some of them are pretty scorched up, but they are still there. We didn't lose one," Hendrix said.
Among the fires elsewhere in the West:
- A 72-square-mile wildfire in central Utah has destroyed at least 56 structures and continues to burn with just 15 percent containment, authorities said. Officials expected the damage estimate to rise as they continue their assessment.
- The smaller fire near St. George started Wednesday and had grown to 2,000 acres by midnight, forcing some residents to evacuate. The fire was burning about three miles north of Zion National Park. At least eight structures were destroyed.
- Fire crews in southeastern Montana used a break in the weather to dig containment lines around two wildfires that have burned 200 square miles and dozens of homes. The improved conditions led to residents clamoring to be let back in to check their properties and assess the damage, but authorities kept evacuation orders in place for hundreds of people.
- A wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest has grown from about 12,000 acres to 23,000 acres, or nearly 36 square miles, officials said.
- In northern Colorado, about 1,900 people were being allowed back into their homes Thursday more than two weeks after a devastating fire erupted. The fire killed one woman and destroyed 257 homes, a state record.
Associated Press writers Dan Elliott and Rema Rahman in Denver, Chris Carlson in Colorado Springs, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo., Whitney Phillips in Salt Lake City, Matthew Brown in Roundup, Mont., and Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., contributed to this report.