CHRIS CARLSON/Associated Press
CHRIS CARLSON/Associated Press
COLORADO SPRINGS – Firefighters searching for bodies in smoldering piles of the nearly 350 homes burned to the ground by the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history found a second body Friday at a residence where another person was found dead earlier.
As crews on the front lines made slow but steady progress against the flames, Police Chief Pete Carey said fewer than 10 people altogether were unaccounted for. The remains of one person were found Thursday in what was left standing of one home. He confirmed that the remains of a second person who lived there were found Friday.
The 26-square-mile blaze – one of several wildfires burning out of control across the tinder-dry West – was reported to be 25 percent contained, and authorities began lifting some of the evacuation orders for the more than 30,000 people who fled their homes a few days ago.
After growing explosively earlier in the week, the 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.
“The focus for today is to hold what we got,” extend the fire lines to contain more of the blaze, and bring in more heavy equipment, said Rich Harvey, incident commander for the fire.
Exhausted firefighters fresh off the front lines described the devastation in some neighborhoods and the challenges of battling such a huge blaze.
“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.
“Everything you put water on, it was just swallowing it,” he said.
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.
Community leaders began notifying residents Thursday that their homes were destroyed. Lists of the heavily damaged streets were posted at a high school, and residents scanned the sheets, but for many, the notification was a formality. They had already recognized their streets on the aerial pictures that appeared in the news.
“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 too dangerous to allow them in to start their investigation.
More than 1,000 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 today 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:
At least 60 homes near Pocatello, Idaho, burned in a fast-moving wildfire that started Thursday evening. The blaze covered more than 1˝ square miles. Officials said it was human-caused but gave no details.
A 70-square-mile wildfire in Utah destroyed at least 160 structures, more than 50 of them primary homes. Another blaze in Utah doubled in size to 70 square miles and was threatening about 75 structures.
Blazes also burned in Wyoming and Montana.
Authorities battling six wildfires in Utah said Colorado was taking most of the available fire crews, leaving them short-handed.
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.
Associated Press writers Dan Elliott, Rema Rahman and Catherine Tsai in Denver, Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City, Paul Foy in Price, Utah, Matthew Brown in Roundup, Mont., and Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., contributed to this report.