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Obama surveys ‘enormous’ devastation wrought by wildfires

By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times –

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As thousands of evacuees were allowed to return to their homes in this fire-scorched area, President Barack Obama on Friday surveyed neighborhoods charred to ruins by the deadly Waldo Canyon fire, the most destructive in state history, saying that the “devastation is enormous.”

The president toured the Mountain Shadows area, where melted cars sat in driveways and rows of homes were burned to their foundations. At last count 347 homes have been lost. While visiting a YMCA evacuation shelter, Obama told those gathered that “everyone all across the country has Colorado Springs’ back.”

(PHOTO: President Barack Obama talks with firefighters in Mountain Shadow as he toured decimation from The Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado,Friday, June 29, 2012. )

Obama’s visit came as more favorable weather conditions allowed firefighters to make progress against the monster blaze that has had the town on the edge of panic since last weekend. One person was found dead inside a burned down residence. Less than 10 people remain unaccounted for, Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey said.

About 12,000 people — about one-third of the mass evacuation Tuesday night when the fire exploded over a mountain ridge near town — were allowed to return to their homes. Another 20,000 remained under evacuation orders as the fire threat still lingered and firefighters had only 15 percent containment on the estimated 16,750-acre blaze.

Frustrations grew among those anxious to return home.

Dick and Charla Bertrand had been evacuated even though their Colorado Springs home is several miles away from the fire lines. They have been sleeping on a cot in the Cheyenne Mountain High School gymnasium, where the American Red Cross set up a shelter for displaced residents.

“What was frustrating was people that were just down the street got to go back and we didn’t, and we don’t understand why,” Dick Bertrand said. “But that’s the way it is.”

Their neighbor, Elizabeth Garcia, was in the same predicament: Suspecting her condominium was undamaged but unable to return and check it out.

“I’ve been told I have the patience of Job, but I’ve never been tested like this,” said Garcia, 47, who was staying in the high school gymnasium with her college-aged son.

The only hotel Teresa and Dale Farmer could find was some 50 miles from home in Pueblo, Colo., where a number of other displaced residents sought refuge.

They fled Tuesday with Dale’s 73-year-old mother and their dog, the air thick with smoke as a ridge above their home roared with flames and hot ash fell from an orange sky. Three days later they were eager to get back to inspect their home for damage.

“It sounds as though we have a house there, but that’s all we know,” Dale Farmer said.

Authorities had not indicated Friday afternoon when others would be allowed to return home. Full containment is not expected until mid-July. The cause is still under investigation.

The state’s other major fires, the High Park fire west of Fort Collins and the Flagstaff fire outside Boulder, appeared headed for containment by the weekend.

Until this week the High Park fire ranked as the most destructive in Colorado history, destroying 257 homes. As of Friday afternoon that blaze, at 87,284 acres, was 85 percent contained, with full containment projected for Sunday.

Colorado Springs officials broke the bad news to hundreds of families who lost homes in the Waldo Canyon fire at an emotional meeting Thursday evening on the University of Colorado campus.

Among them were Byron and Rebekah Largent, who only managed to grab a few essentials — some clothing, a laptop, files and photos — before the fire raged through their neighborhood and destroyed their rented home on Tuesday, their daughter’s first birthday.

The married couple offered support to friends and neighbors as they began to grieve and reassemble their lives.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Byron Largent said. “You lose some things that you can’t replace, but as long as you’re alive — and we got our daughter out, us out — what else matters?”

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