By P. SOLOMON BANDA and THOMAS PEIPERTAssociated Press
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - A raging Colorado wildfire that forced tens of thousands to flee has left at least one person dead and has destroyed an estimated 346 homes this week, making it the most destructive fire in the state's history, officials said Thursday.
Police Chief Pete Carey said the remains of one person were found in a home where two people had been reported missing. He didn't elaborate or take questions after making the announcement late Thursday.
From above, the fire's destruction is painfully clear: Rows and rows of houses were reduced to smoldering ashes even as some homes just feet away survived largely intact.
At a meeting Thursday night, Rebekah and Byron Largent learned from lists distributed by authorities that their home was among those that burned Tuesday, their daughter Emma's first birthday.
"Our minds just started sifting through all the memories of that house that we lost that can't be replaced," Rebekah Largent said. She remembered her wedding dress, a grandmother's china, the rocking chair where the couple would sit with Emma.
"Our little girl, our 1-year-old daughter, that's the house that she's lived in the longest. It's just really hard to have lost a lot of the memories connected to that, you know? They just burned," she said.
On one street, all but three houses had burned to their foundations, said Ryan Schneider, whose home was still standing in a neighborhood where 51 others were destroyed.
"I was real happy at first. My wife was happy," he said. "The emotion of seeing the other homes, though, was instant sadness."
The aerial photos showing the scope of one of the worst fires to hit the American West in decades did little to help ease the concerns of many residents who still did not know the fate of homes.
Amid the devastation in the foothills of Colorado Springs, there were hopeful signs. Flames advancing on the U.S. Air Force Academy were stopped and cooler conditions could help slow the fire.
The fire was 15 percent contained Thursday night. The cost of fighting the blaze had already reached $3.2 million.
Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach said the estimate of 346 homes could change. A fire in northern Colorado, which was still burning, destroyed 257 homes and until Thursday was the most destructive in state history.
For now, Bach said, the news of the destruction would make it very difficult for affected residents in the city about 60 miles south of Denver.
"This community is going to surround them with love and encouragement," Bach said.
More than 30,000 people frantically packed up belongings Tuesday night as the flames swept through their neighborhoods.
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation said two people have been arrested in connection with a burglary at an evacuated home. Belinda Yates and Shane Garrett were being held on charges including second-degree burglary and possession of methamphetamine.
Community officials were planning to begin the process of notifying residents Thursday that their homes were destroyed. For many residents, the official notification was a formality.
Residents recognized their streets on aerial pictures and carefully scrutinized the images to determine the damage. Photos and video from The Associated Press and The Denver Post showed widespread damage.
Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city, is home to the U.S. Olympic Training Center, NORAD and the Air Force Space Command, which operates military satellites. They were not threatened.
Conditions were still too dicey to allow authorities to begin trying to figure out what sparked the blaze that has raged for much of the week and already burned more than 26 square miles.
President Barack Obama declared a major disaster late Thursday, making federal funding available in Colorado Springs' El Paso County as well as Larimer County, where a fire that erupted two weeks ago killed a woman and destroyed 257 homes.
Obama was to tour fire-stricken areas Friday as hundreds of locals and some tourists who were staying at Red Cross shelters hoped life would return to normal. Others stayed with friends and family.
Bill and Lois Bartlett said they believe their neighborhood was spared but remained wary as they waited at a YMCA shelter set up by the Red Cross.
"I've been through a lot of stuff like this before but not in civilian life," said Bill Bartlett, who flew B-17 bombers during World War II.
His wife Lois said the Red Cross bought them two special cots to make them more comfortable but still found staying at the shelter difficult. "You don't have any privacy. You can't look at TV and get the news," she said.
The weather forecast offered some optimism for firefighters to make progress, with the temperature expected to reach into the mid-80s - about 5 degrees cooler than Wednesday - and humidity at 15 to 20 percent, about 5 points higher. Winds were forecast to be 10 to 15 mph.
The fire blackened up to 50 acres along the southwest boundary of the Air Force Academy campus, said Anne Rys-Sikora, a spokeswoman for the firefighters. No injuries or damage to structures - including the iconic Cadet Chapel - were reported.
Fort Carson, an Army infantry post about 15 miles from the academy, sent 120 soldiers along with bulldozers and other heavy equipment to help clear a line to stop the fire on the academy. Rys-Sikora said the academy was not getting a disproportionate share of equipment and firefighters.
The Flying W Ranch, a popular tourist attraction near Colorado Springs, was severely damaged in the blaze. But authorities let people into the area to check on cattle. John Hendrix, who volunteers at the Flying W, said 47 animals were accounted for.
"Some of them are pretty scorched up, but they are still there. We didn't lose one," Hendrix said.
Among the fires elsewhere in the West:
- A 72-square-mile wildfire in central Utah has destroyed at least 56 structures and continues to burn with just 20 percent containment, authorities said. Officials expected the damage estimate to rise as they continue their assessment.
- A smaller fire near St. George, Utah, started Wednesday and had grown to 2,000 acres by midnight, forcing some residents to evacuate. The fire was burning about three miles north of Zion National Park. At least eight structures were destroyed.
- Fire crews in southeastern Montana used a break in the weather to dig containment lines around two wildfires that have burned 200 square miles and dozens of homes. The improved conditions led to residents clamoring to be let back in to check their properties and assess the damage, but authorities kept evacuation orders in place for hundreds of people.
- A wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest has grown from about 12,000 acres to 23,000 acres, or nearly 36 square miles, officials said.
- In northern Colorado, about 1,900 people were allowed back into their homes Thursday, more than two weeks after the High Park Fire erupted. The blaze was 85 percent contained. The 257 homes it destroyed was a state record until that figure was eclipsed by the Colorado Springs fire.
Meanwhile, an erratic wildfire gaining steam in western Colorado prompted officials to evacuate homes of about 50 residents south of De Beque as the 10,000-acre blaze threatened to cross Interstate 70 Thursday night, the Bureau of Land Management said.
Associated Press writers Dan Elliott and Rema Rahman in Denver, Chris Carlson in Colorado Springs, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo., Whitney Phillips in Salt Lake City, Matthew Brown in Roundup, Mont., and Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., contributed to this report.
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