Residents to tour areas devastated by Colo. blaze

By Mead Gruver

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, July 1 2012 11:54 a.m. MDT

The Mountain Shadows neighborhood is left damaged by the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colo., Friday, June 29, 2012. After declaring a "major disaster" in the state early Friday and promising federal aid, President Barack Obama got a firsthand view of the wildfires and their toll on residential communities. More than 30,000 people have been evacuated in what is now the most destructive wildfire in state history.

The Denver Post, Joe Amon) MAGS OUT; TV OUT; INTERNET OUT, Associated Press

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — People who fled the most destructive fire in Colorado's history are being allowed temporary visits to the most devastated neighborhoods, and many will find that their homes were among the nearly 350 burned to the ground.

About 10,000 people remain evacuated, down from more than 30,000 at the peak of the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, but authorities said Sunday morning they hoped to lift more evacuation orders later in the day.

The 26-square-mile fire was 45 percent contained as of Sunday morning. It was one of many burning across the West, including eight in Utah and a fast-growing blaze in Montana that forced residents in several small communities to leave.

Rich Harvey, incident commander for the Waldo Creek blaze, said crews continue to make good progress.

"We're cautiously optimistic," he said Sunday morning. "We still remain focused on things that could go wrong."

On Sunday people whose homes were burned will be allowed to tour the affected areas. Authorities said some residences would be cordoned off with police tape, and people would not be allowed beyond that point.

The home of Janine Herbertson and her 15-year-old daughter, Tessa Konik, remained unburned amid 150 others that were destroyed, said Herbertson as they ate lunch Saturday outside a Red Cross shelter.

Even so, "I'm afraid to go on the tour tomorrow and see our neighborhood in ruins," she said.

About 1,500 personnel were fighting the Waldo Canyon fire, and authorities said they were confident they had built good fire lines in many areas to stop flames from spreading.

Two bodies were found in the ruins of one house, one of almost 350 destroyed in this city 60 miles south of Denver. The victims' names haven't been released. Police Chief Pete Carey said Saturday afternoon the approximately 10 people who had been unaccounted for had now been located.

Police did not expect to discover other victims in the rubble.

More than 150 National Guard soldiers and airmen helped Colorado Springs police staff roadblocks and patrol streets. Carey said Saturday the presence of military personnel will allow his department to resume normal police work in the rest of the city.

Evacuees Saturday filtered back into an unscathed neighborhood of winding streets and split-level homes within an easy walk of the burned area.

High school counselor Pat Allen and her husband, Vic Miller, were all smiles less than five minutes after returning to their tri-level home on a quiet cul-de-sac.

"I'm just wanting to kiss the house, dance with the neighbors", Allen said.

Authorities are still trying to determine the cause of the fire that broke out on June 23, and which so far has cost $8.8 million to battle. Dangerous conditions had kept them from beginning their inquiry, but investigators were able to start their work on Saturday.

Among the fires elsewhere in the West:

— Utah: Residents were sifting through the ashes of more than 50 houses destroyed by a central Utah wildfire. Homeowners were allowed to return Saturday to Indianola along Utah's scenic Route 89. In all, eight wildfires are burning across Utah.

— Montana: Authorities in eastern Montana ordered the evacuation of several communities Saturday as the Ash Creek Complex fires, which has burned more than 70 homes this week, consumed another 72 square miles. The blaze grew to 244 square miles overnight.

— Wyoming: A wind-driven wildfire in a sparsely populated area of southeastern Wyoming exploded from eight square miles to nearly 58 square miles in a single day, and an unknown number of structures have burned. About 200 structures were considered threatened.

— Idaho: A fast-moving 1,000-acre wildfire in eastern Idaho that destroyed 66 homes and 29 outbuildings was expected to be contained Saturday. Some 1,000 residents were evacuated; it was unclear when they would be allowed back.

— Colorado: The last evacuees from the High Park Fire in northern Colorado have been allowed to return home as crews get closer to full containment. The 136-square-mile fire killed one resident and destroyed 259 houses, a state record until the fire near Colorado Springs destroyed 346 homes. In western Colorado, the 18-square-mile Pine Ridge Fire was 10 percent contained.

Associated Press writers Paul Foy in Salt Lake City, Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho, and Dan Elliott in Denver contributed to this report.

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