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Toll rises in Colorado wildfire

June 29, 2012 12:49:58 PM PDT
Firefighters went from one smoldering pile to another Friday in search of bodies in the nearly 350 homes burned to the ground by the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.

As crews on the front lines made slow but steady progress against the flames, Police Chief Pete Carey said fewer than 10 people altogether were unaccounted for. The remains of one person were found Thursday in what was left standing of one home, and a second person who lived there was missing.

The 26-square-mile blaze - one of several wildfires burning out of control across the tinder-dry West - was reported to be 15 percent contained, and authorities began lifting some of the evacuation orders for the more than 30,000 people who fled their homes a few days ago.

After growing explosively earlier in the week, the fire did not gain any ground overnight, authorities reported Friday. And the weather was clear and mostly calm, a welcome break from the lightning and high wind that drove the flames.

"The focus for today is to hold what we got," extend the fire lines to contain more of the blaze, and bring in more heavy equipment, said Rich Harvey, incident commander for the fire.

Exhausted firefighters fresh off the front lines described the devastation in some neighborhoods and the challenges of battling such a huge blaze.

"It looks like hell. I would imagine it felt like a nuclear bomb went off. There was fire everywhere. Everything had a square shape to it because it was foundations," said Rich Rexach, who had been working 12-hour days since Tuesday, when flames swept through neighborhoods in this city of more than 400,000 people 60 miles south of Denver.

"Everything you put water on, it was just swallowing it," he said.

President Barack Obama toured the stricken areas Friday after issuing a disaster declaration for Colorado that frees up federal funds.

As residents waited anxiously to see what was left of their homes, police reported several burglaries in evacuated areas, along with break-ins of cars packed with evacuees' possessions outside hotels.

Community leaders began notifying residents Thursday that their homes were destroyed. Lists of the heavily damaged streets were posted at a high school, and residents scanned the sheets, but for many, the notification was a formality. They had already recognized their streets on the aerial pictures that appeared in the news.

Mike Bukowski had mixed emotions because his home was spared while people around him lost theirs.

"Just to see this destruction, it tears your heart out," he said.

Authorities were still trying to figure out what caused the fire. They said conditions were too dangerous to allow them in to start their investigation.

More than 1,000 personnel and six helicopters were fighting the fire. All eight firefighting planes at Colorado Springs' Peterson Air Force Base will be pressed into service Saturday, marking the first time the entire fleet has been activated since 2008, Col. Jerry Champlin said.

Among the fires elsewhere in the West:
- At least 60 homes near Pocatello, Idaho, burned in a fast-moving wildfire that started Thursday evening. The blaze covered more than 1? square miles. Officials said it was human-caused but gave no details - A 70-square-mile wildfire in Utah destroyed at least 160 structures, more than 50 of them primary homes. Another blaze in Utah doubled in size to 70 square miles and was threatening about 75 structures.

Blazes also burned in Wyoming and Montana.

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Associated Press writers Dan Elliott, Rema Rahman and Catherine Tsai in Denver, Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City, Matthew Brown in Roundup, Mont., and Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., contributed to this report.

CLICK TO SEE PHOTOS OF THE COLORADO WILDFIRES

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