Colorado Springs Fire Most Destructive in State History

Colorado Springs Fire Consumes Hundreds of Homes
A helicopter flies over a scorched foothills to drop water on the Waldo Canyon fire on June 27, 2012 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photographer: Chris Schneider/Getty Images

Emotions ran high in Colorado Springs as hundreds of people forced to flee their wooded subdivisions learned whether their homes survived the most destructive wildfire in state history.

“I looked at the list of homes tonight and our whole neighborhood is leveled,” Rebekah Largent, 31, said last night. “It’s unrecognizable.”

A search on foot through areas burned out by the Waldo Canyon fire showed at least 346 residences destroyed in Colorado’s second-largest city, Mayor Steve Bach said yesterday. One person was found dead in a home where two had been reported missing, Police Chief Pete Carey said today.

President Barack Obama arrived to tour the area today and declared the state, where several fires are burning, a disaster area, releasing funds to aid state and local governments, the White House said in a statement. Air Force One took the president for an aerial view northwest of the city as smoke plumes rose from several fires.

Drought and winds have fueled fires across the western U.S. Federal personnel are supplementing local and state forces battling fires in Colorado, Alaska, Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Firefighting Army

As of late yesterday, 21 air tankers had been assigned to fires, along with more than 8,800 workers, 550 fire engines and 170 helicopters, according to the Forest Service.

More than 1,000 federal, state and local firefighters, approximately 70 fire engines and six helicopters are devoted to the Colorado Springs fire, the Forest Service said.

That fire has consumed almost 29 square miles (75 square kilometers), about the size of Manhattan. Officials hope to control the blaze, which was 15 percent contained today, by July 16, according to the Incident Information System, a multi-agency coordinating group.

Colorado Springs firefighter Rick McNew, 42, said he could hear cows lowing in the distance as he laid water hoses around the 35 streets in the Mountain Shadows area after the fire started June 23. When he returned four days later, the neighborhood where he urged residents to leave was burned to the ground.

Etched in Memory

“You’re out there fighting the fire and it’s a life-changing event,” said McNew. “We’ll never forget it.”

More than 20,000 homes and 160 businesses remain threatened from the Waldo Canyon fire, and the cost for battling the blaze so far is $5.2 million, the Incident Information System website said.

The wildfire forced more than 34,000 evacuees to seek shelter. Some have been allowed to return home.

Last night, counselors were on hand at a University of Colorado-Colorado Springs auditorium as residents were ushered into side rooms where city workers told them whether their homes survived.

Some knew their status before they arrived, the Largents among them. Their house was gone.

“We had seen pictures,” Largent said.

“We lost a lot of possessions -- some are replaceable, some are not,” said her husband, Byron, 27. They had lived in the home since February, he said.

The fire reached their home June 26, the first birthday of their daughter, Emma. They lost Rebekah’s wedding dress, her grandmother’s china and “the rocking chair we rocked our baby in for a year,” Byron said.

Flood of Food

Miles Prim learned that both his apartment and business survived and that he could return to both. Prim is vice president of operations for a specialty electronics manufacturer with 58 employees in a western section of town.

“We have customers and families that need us to get back to work,” Prim said.

The fire brought people together, with some residents taking in evacuees and others eager to donate and help victims.

A food bank said it had so many offers from people who want to help that it started a waiting list. It uses 130 volunteers a day to staff its warehouse.

“We opened a special food drive on Sunday morning and since then we’ve had a flood of volunteers and donations -- even from evacuees,” said Lynne Telford, president and chief executive officer of the Care & Share Food Bank. “We’ve been so surprised and overwhelmed.”

Pulling Together

Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, yesterday announced the creation of a fund to benefit victims. The fund has received $600,000 in donations from individuals, foundations and businesses, according to a statement from his office.

“Coloradans are at their best when they work together to help each other in difficult times,” Hickenlooper said.

Firefighters said they made progress yesterday, helped by lower winds and short bursts of rain from thunderstorms.

“Yesterday we had great weather,” Jerri Marr, Pike & San Isabel National Forest supervisor, said today. “Once again, it looks like we’ll have the same weather today. We made great strides.”

The fire burned 10 acres on the U.S. Air Force Academy’s campus, near residences housing more than 2,000 members of military families, and was no longer a threat, Lieutenant Colonel John Bryan, a spokesman for the school, said yesterday. More than 1,000 cadets were to be sworn in at a ceremony today.

Families living east of Interstate 25, across from the academy, banded together to take in evacuees.

Homemaker Janice Barnes, 42, and her husband, an Air Force computer technician, brought in pizza and rotisserie chicken dinners to feed their two teenagers and two other Air Force families who took shelter with them after base housing was evacuated June 26.

“I’d rather have people come with me rather than be in a hotel or an airplane hangar,” said Barnes, adding that her children offered to sleep on the floor to make room.

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