COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Making slow but steady progress against a wildfire that has killed at least two people, authorities hoped for continued favorable weather and asked for patience from thousands of evacuees who fled encroaching flames that destroyed nearly 350 homes.
A second body was found Friday in the rubble of a home where another person was found dead earlier. Officials, who were searching each charred lot for more possible victims, have not yet released identifications. Police Chief Pete Carey said fewer than 10 people altogether were unaccounted for.
The 26-square-mile blaze – one of several wildfires burning across the West – was reported to be 25 percent contained – up from 15 percent Thursday.
Evacuation orders were lifted for some of the more than 30,000 people forced from their homes earlier this week, but restrictions remained on neighborhoods with the most damage.
“We’re just pleading with people to have some patience while we work through this, this is a very stubborn situation we’re dealing with,” said Colorado Springs Fire Chief Richard Brown.
Colorado Springs police said they were swamped with calls from people asking when they could return to their homes.
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 1,000 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 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:
– Idaho: At least 60 homes near Pocatello, Idaho, burned in a fast-moving wildfire that started Thursday evening. The blaze covered more than 1 1/2 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.
– Wyoming: A day of hot, dry, windy weather kept firefighters from making much headway Friday on two large, out-of-control wildfires. The third large wildfire in Medicine Bow National Forest in the southeast part of the state quickly overwhelmed initial firefighting efforts and forced the evacuation of about 100 homes, officials said Friday.
– 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.”
CREDIT: By MEAD GRUVER and P. SOLOMON BANDA, Associated Press