Obama Visits Site of Colorado’s Most Destructive Wildfire

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the press from Mountain Shadow neighborhood, which was burned by wildfires on June 29, 2012 in Colorado Springs. Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/GettyImages

President Barack Obama toured scenes of devastation in Colorado Springs a day after thousands of evacuees began learning whose homes survived the most destructive wildfire in state history.

The president’s motorcade rolled through mountainside areas of Colorado’s second-largest city where the Waldo Canyon blaze left nothing except bricks, burned cars and charred trees. “The devastation is enormous,” said Obama, who declared the state a federal disaster area.

A second person was found dead in a home where two had been reported missing, Police Chief Pete Carey said. While at least 346 residences were destroyed, firefighters saved four out of five homes in the affected areas, Fire Chief Rich Brown said.

“Our heart aches for people who lost their lives or lost their properties, but 81 percent of these properties were saved,” Brown said. Damage estimates are incomplete. The cost to fight the fire nearly doubled in two days to $6.2 million, said Rich Harvey, incident commander for the multi-agency task force fighting the blaze.

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.

In the mountainous Pike National Forest overlooking southwestern Colorado Springs, six firefighters from Montana marched in a line through pine woods that smelled of sap and burned needles.

Sifting Embers

With Pikes Peak -- the inspiration for “America the Beautiful” -- towering 14,000 feet (4,270 meters) in the background, the firefighters called to one another “straight,” and “watch your footing” and “lift up your face.” They periodically stopped and bent down to pick up a handful of the fine blackened earth, choking as they sifted through it for embers.

Bright red retardant dropped from aircraft had stopped the flames from jumping a road near mansions in Cedar Heights overlooking red rock formations in Garden of the Gods Park.

“That pink stuff on the rocks and bushes is retardant and it’s used to help keep the fire from traveling,” said Greg Heule, a Forest Service spokesman. “You can see it worked.”

State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., which is the biggest U.S. home and car insurer, has received 75 claims resulting from the fire and expects that to rise, said Angela Thorpe, a spokeswoman for the Bloomington, Illinois-based company. A Zurich Insurance Group AG unit called Farmers, which trails only State Farm in the Colorado market, has received 665 fire-related claims, according to Jerry Davies, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-based insurer.

Disaster Declaration

Obama’s disaster declaration releases funds to state and local governments, according to a statement from the White House. Before landing, Air Force One took the president for an aerial view northwest of the city as plumes rose from several fires.

Unlike election rival Mitt Romney, Obama can invoke the powers of the office to show concern in a swing state with nine electoral votes. Obama won the state in 2008.

“Just showing up is probably 75 percent of it,” said Linda P. Schacht, who worked in President Jimmy Carter’s White House press office and now teaches political communications at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. “The presence of the president reinforces the idea that there’s a government that’s there in time of need.”

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.

25% Contained

That fire has consumed almost 29 square miles (75 square kilometers), about the size of Manhattan. Officials hope to control the blaze, which was 25 percent contained yesterday, by July 16, according to the Incident Information System, a multi-agency coordinating group.

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

Carey, the police chief, said more than a dozen evacuees who rescued possessions from their homes had them stolen from their cars in hotel parking lots.

Two people were arrested after police said they broke into a home behind the fire lines. People returning to undamaged houses reported home and car burglaries or thefts, said Carey, who said he hopes to direct more police to the evacuated areas soon.

‘Life Changing’

Colorado Springs Firefighter Rick McNew, 42, called the wildfire “a life-changing event.”

Cows were bawling in the distance as he laid hoses and urged residents to leave the Mountain Shadows neighborhood June 23, he said.

When he returned four days later, the area was burned to the ground. A police detective who’d brought firefighters 15 hamburgers as a thank-you lost his home.

Near where he heard the cows, McNew attacked flames that flared up in a dead tree, shooting embers down the street dangerously near several homes that survived.

“We put out 40 to 50 hot spots in there last night,” he said yesterday.

“For us, this is a long, trying time,” McNew said. “We’ll never forget it.”

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