- Associated Press - Friday, June 29, 2012

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — After waiting for two days, Rebekah and Byron Largent learned from lists distributed by authorities that their home was among the hundreds that burned to the ground in the most destructive wildfire ever to rage across Colorado.

It was especially hurtful as their house was destroyed on their daughter Emma’s first birthday.

“Our minds just started sifting through all the memories of that house that we lost that can’t be replaced,” Rebekah Largent said Thursday night. She remembered her wedding dress, a grandmother’s china, the rocking chair where the couple would sit with Emma.

“Our little girl, our 1-year-old daughter, that’s the house that she’s lived in the longest. It’s just really hard to have lost a lot of the memories connected to that, you know? They just burned,” she said.

Officials said the Waldo Canyon fire that forced tens of thousands to flee this city 60 miles south of Denver destroyed an estimated 346 homes and left at least one person dead.

Police Chief Pete Carey said the remains of one person were found in a home where two people had been reported missing. Neither the victim nor the missing person has been identified.

Carey said police are still trying to track down the whereabouts of “less than 10” people who may be unaccounted for.

President Barack Obama was to tour fire-stricken areas Friday after issuing a disaster declaration for Colorado, releasing federal funds to help.

Rich Harvey, the incident commander in charge of the massive firefighting effort, said the fire was held at bay overnight, with no growth of the perimeter and no more houses lost.

The fire was 15 percent contained Friday morning.

Jerri Marr, supervisor of the Pike and San Isabel national forests where the blaze started, said favorable weather was a boon to firefighters Thursday.

“Yesterday we had great weather,” she said. “Looks like we’re going to have that same weather today.”

From above Colorado Springs, the destruction was painfully clear: Rows and rows of houses were reduced to smoldering ashes even as some homes just feet away survived largely intact.

When he first saw the aerial photos of the homes burned in his neighborhood, Ryan Schneider recognized immediately that his house had been spared.

But relief quickly turned to sadness for his many friends and neighbors who hadn’t been so lucky.

“I mean, there’s a lifetime of things that people collect in these homes, and they’ve lost it all,” said Schneider, vice president of the 1,700-home community association for the Mountain Shadows neighborhood.

Amid the devastation in the foothills of Colorado Springs, there were hopeful signs. Weather conditions improved Thursday and some evacuation orders were lifted by the evening, though there was no immediate word on how many people would be allowed back. People were told to still be ready to flee at a moment’s notice.

The Air Force Academy was letting residents return Friday morning and officials said normal operations would resume throughout most of the academy.

“We’re gaining more confidence,” said Bret Waters, director of the Colorado Springs emergency management office. “It doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods.”

More than 30,000 people frantically packed up belongings Tuesday night as the flames swept through their neighborhoods.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation said two people have been arrested in connection with a burglary at an evacuated home.

Community officials began the process of notifying residents Thursday that their homes were destroyed. The lists of more than 30 street names were posted at a local high school, listing those areas with heavy damage. Anxious residents scanned the sheets, but for many, the official notification was a formality. They recognized 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 26 square miles.

Authorities said earlier the fire was 29 square miles. More precise mapping often results in revisions of size estimates for active fires.

More than 1,000 personnel and six helicopters were fighting the fire, which had cost at least $3.2 million to fight.

All eight Air Force cargo planes equipped to fight wildfires will be operating Saturday out of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, the Air Force said.

This will be the first time the entire fleet has been activated simultaneously since 2008, Col. Jerry Champlin said.

Four of the planes are already attacking Colorado wildfires from Peterson. Late Thursday, U.S. Northern Command approved a Forest Service request to activate the other four.

The C-130s are assigned to National Guard and Reserve units in California, Colorado, North Carolina and Wyoming.

Hundreds of people sought refuge at area shelters operated by the Red Cross, including tourists who’d come to enjoy the Colorado summer.

Preston Harrington, 40, of Lake Charles, La., had been hoping to climb nearby Pikes Peak.

He had been at a Manitou Springs motel when he was evacuated early Sunday, and then moved to a shelter at a high school and was living out of a suitcase

“No drawer, nothing to put this stuff in, it wears on you,” Harrington said.

Schneider, the local neighborhood leader, said the enormity of the losses would take a while to sink in.

“There’s a lot of tears being shed out there, it’s tough,” he 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 20 percent containment, authorities said. Officials expected the damage estimate to rise as they continue their assessment.

• The smaller fire near St. George, Utah, started Wednesday and had grown to 2,000 acres by midnight, forcing some residents to evacuate. The fire, which was 60 percent contained Friday, 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 Wyoming wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest has grown from to nearly 36 square miles, officials said.

• In northern Colorado, about 1,900 people were allowed back into their homes on Thursday more than two weeks after the devastating High Park Fire erupted. The blaze was 85 percent contained. The fire killed one woman and destroyed 259 homes, authorities said Friday after the latest damage assessment. The destructive toll marked a state record until being eclipsed by the Colorado Springs fire.

• A wildfire gaining steam in western Colorado prompted officials to evacuate homes of about 50 residents in the southern part of De Beque as the 19-square-mile blaze threatened to cross Interstate 70 Thursday night. A 13-mile stretch of the highway was closed overnight but one lane in each direction reopened on Friday.

Associated Press writers Dan Elliott, Rema Rahman and Catherine Tsai 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.

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