USA –-Speaking in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after touring areas ravaged by fires Friday, President Barack Obama said that he saw “enormous devastation” in some subdivisions but that authorities are also “starting to see progress.”
“When natural disasters like this hit, America comes together,” he said.
The president touted the efforts of firefighters and federal, state and local agencies, expressing his hope that some good might yet come from the calamity.
“Some lessons are being learned about how we can mitigate some of these fires in the future. … Hopefully, out of this tragedy, some long-term planning occurs, and it may be that we can curb some of the damage that happens the next time,” the president said.
Friday also brought sad news to Colorado Springs: The monster wildfire that raged nearby and came roaring down a mountain has turned deadly.
Authorities discovered a charred body in a house consumed by flames. One other person was missing.
In all, 346 homes were ravaged, and the threat still looms large. Another 20,000 homes and 160 businesses stand dangerously close to the blaze.
The Waldo Canyon Fire has scorched more than 16,700 acres and brought fear, anxiety and grief to Colorado Springs, the state’s second-largest city that was, until a few days ago, happily situated in the valley below picturesque Pikes Peak.
But Friday also brought some relief.
The fire, raging since last weekend, had been growing steadily, fueled by hot, arid conditions and winds that gusted at 65 miles per hour. Thursday was the first day that firefighters felt they were winning the battle.
The winds had calmed to 10 miles per hour; the temperatures dropped to the 90s.
Incident commander Rich Harvey said fire crews made “really good progress.”
He was happy to report that no additional structures were lost Thursday. There was no growth in the perimeter of the fire, and it was now 15% contained.
The effort to tame the flames got a boost Friday from the military, which is deploying eight of the U.S. Forest Service’s Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems aboard C-130 aircraft. The systems will drop retardant on the Waldo Canyon Fire as well as other wildfires still burning in Colorado.
Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach, who has been present at media briefings, skipped talking to reporters Friday morning.
He attended an emotional meeting the evening before with residents wanting to know what had happened to their homes. And in the morning, he was gearing up for his meeting with the president, sorting out in his head what kind of federal aid he would ask for.
“I really appreciate the president coming here … if nothing more than just to reassure us that this has a focus at a national level, that there are people all over this country who are concerned for our citizens and those who have lost their homes,” Bach said.
“And I do plan to ask for cash,” he added.
He had promised that his community would surround fire victims with love and encouragement; that they would move forward as a city.
Obama declared Colorado a disaster area to allow for the flow of federal dollars to help fight the Waldo Canyon Fire as well the High Park Fire, which has burned more than 87,000 acres in northern Colorado since it began on June 9.
Among the people whose lives are forever changed are Rebekah and Byron Largent.
They should have been celebrating their daughter Emma’s first birthday Tuesday. Instead, they fled their home.
They thought they would be back in a few days and took only what they could carry: a few toys, clothes.
Byron Largent listened intently to an emergency scanner and heard a firefighter say, “Majestic is gone.”
Majestic is the name of their street. He braced himself for the worst.
He clung to his wife at Thursday’s meeting as they got the dreaded confirmation on a piece of paper that listed the 346 houses on 34 streets. Their rented house was burned to a pile of smoldering ash and rubble.
Gone are the wedding dress, the family photos and Rebekah Largent’s grandmother’s china.
“I looked at it and said, ‘we’ll be back in a few days,’ ” Byron Largent said of the china.
Also gone is the rocking chair where the Largents took turns over the past year rocking Emma to sleep.
“That’s the one we are both really, really distraught over, not having anymore,” he said.
Brandon Hanson and his wife, Maria, were also at the meeting. They scanned the list of addresses; theirs was not on it.
“It was a big, big relief,” Hanson said.
But it was relief tempered by the sadness of people who were now homeless.
“The entire neighborhood is gone. It’s like a war zone,” he said. “We are so lucky.”
More than 36,000 people have fled their homes in Colorado Springs neighborhoods like Mountain Shadows and Peregrine.
It was in Mountain Shadows where authorities discovered a charred body late Thursday inside one of the homes during a search for two people who were reported missing in the area.
Authorities made the discovery after a family had “inquired about the status of their loved ones,” police spokeswoman Barbara Miller said.
Miller said it’s possible that another body is at the destroyed home. Authorities were forced to suspend the search because it was too dark to continue, she said.
Carey declined to release further details or identify the missing, saying the case was under investigation.
Carey said fewer than 10 people had been reported missing, and authorities were checking with evacuation centers and relatives to try to find them. They also planned a secondary search of the burned homes to make sure that no one else remained inside.
Authorities also announced the arrest of two people accused of burglarizing a home left vacant by the evacuation order.
Belinda Yates, 38, and Shane Garrett, 36, were being held on suspicion of second-degree burglary, theft, possession of a controlled substance and other related charges, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation said.
Meanwhile, the cause of the Waldo Canyon Fire remains unknown.
The Denver office of the FBI joined agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with local authorities, in investigating reports that an arsonist may be responsible.
It could be mid-July before the fire is fully under control, the U.S. Forest Service said.