Colorado wildfire claims first victim, ranked as state's most destructive
6/29/2012 12:03:54 PM
A fierce wildfire that forced the evacuation of 35,000 people at the edge of Colorado's second-most populous city has killed at least one person and incinerated 346 homes, ranking it as the most destructive blaze in state history, authorities said on Thursday.
The grim news came as lighter winds helped fire-fighters battling to contain the inferno, which unleashed its greatest fury when it suddenly roared unchecked on Tuesday night through residential neighborhoods in the northwestern corner of Colorado Springs and nibbled at the fringe of the U.S. Air Force Academy campus in town.
Aerial photos of devastation unleashed by the so-called Waldo Canyon Fire showed large swaths of neighborhoods reduced to gray ash - one house after another obliterated while adjacent dwellings survived mostly unscathed.
Authorities initially acknowledged the loss of hundreds of homes, but the damage toll released on Thursday afternoon by Mayor Steve Bach - a preliminary count of 346 homes gutted by fire - confirmed the full extent of destruction.
Hours later, Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey announced that a body was found in the debris of a burned-out home, marking the first known fatality from the five-day-old blaze.
Carey said the victim's family had been notified, but he released no further details about the individual, who becomes the fifth person killed this year in a Colorado wildfire season described by the governor as the worst in state history.
The police chief said he also had reports of two adults missing in the fire, but it was not immediately clear whether the body found accounted for one of them.
Earlier in the day, police said some people listed as unaccounted for were believed to be individuals who neglected to register with the city or the American Red Cross as evacuees.
The tally of homes consumed by Waldo Canyon blaze ranks as the most on record from any fire in the state, surpassing the 257 homes swallowed in recent weeks by a much larger blaze north of Denver near Fort Collins.
President Barack Obama plans to visit Colorado Springs on Friday to meet with fire-fighters and tour the ravaged area.
With the blaze curtailed somewhat by Thursday thanks to calmer winds, the Air Force Academy went ahead with ceremonies welcoming a new class of over 1,000 cadets, base spokesman Harry Lundy said.
For the first time since the blaze erupted on Saturday, a red-flag warning for heightened fire hazards was lifted for the Colorado Springs area.
"We had a pretty good day on the line today. There was minimal fire growth," incident commander Rich Harvey said.
But anguish and frustration ran high among many of the estimated 35,000 residents who remained under evacuation orders.
"You don't have the authority to keep me out of my house," David Dougherty, 45, a retired member of the Armed Forces, shouted out during the news conference. "I understand they're trying to save lives, but some of us don't need to be saved."
Dougherty said he believed his dwelling was still intact and wanted to be let back in to the evacuation zone to secure his home and his belongings. Police reported at least two arrests for burglary in an evacuated neighbourhood.
Some evacuees return, some left homeless
While authorities began letting some evacuees return beginning at 8 p.m. local time on Thursday, hundreds of residents from neighbourhoods caught in the heart of Tuesday's firestorm met privately with city officials on the campus of the University of Colorado to learn the fate of their homes.
Byron Largent, 26, and his wife, Rebekah, 31, who fled with their 1-year-old daughter, Emma, on the first day of the fire, emerged from the meeting saying their worst fears had been confirmed. The house where little Emma took her first steps two weeks ago was gone.
Largent said some of the family's smaller belongings would be the most irreplaceable. "We lost the rocking chair that we rocked our baby to sleep in for a year," he said.
The Waldo Canyon blaze remained a formidable force, with fire crews managing to carve containment lines around just 15 per cent of its perimeter by Thursday afternoon - a fraction of the sprawling fire zone but still double the previous day's total, officials said.
Searing temperatures and strong, erratic winds in recent days stoked the blaze, which has burned at least 18,500 acres (7,487 hectares) of timber and brush, much of it in the Pike National Forest to the west of the city that lies at the base of the famed Pikes Peak mountaintop.
A residential subdivision called Mountain Shadows was hardest hit.
"There was nothing left in some areas, burned-out foundations that were smouldering. It looked like a nuclear weapon had been dropped. It's as close to hell as I could imagine," said Bach, the mayor, after touring the area.
Colorado wildfires have killed four people this year in what the governor called "the worst fire season" in state history.
Earlier this month, the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins and north of Denver killed one woman while leaving 257 homes destroyed and more than 87,000 acres (35,000 ha) blackened. That blaze was listed as 75 percent contained on Thursday.
The cause of the Waldo Canyon Fire remained under investigation, authorities said. FBI's Denver office issued a statement on Thursday saying its agents were "working closely with local, state and federal law enforcement to determine if any of the wild land fires resulted from criminal activity."
The fire menacing Colorado Springs follows a recent string of suspected arson fires in a neighboring county, but officials said they had no indication that the Waldo Canyon blaze was deliberately set.
© Thomson Reuters 2012