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AP/Photo by RJ Sangosti (The Denver Post)

Burning blazes

Disaster | Some Colorado Springs residents return to homes, but with Obama visit underway, wildfires continue

President Barack Obama arrived in Colorado Friday to tour what many believe is the most destructive wildfire in the state's history. Officials said the fire did not grow substantially since Thursday night, and many of the more than 35,000 residents ordered to leave their homes were allowed back into their communities. That gave them a first glimpse of the damage, and aerial photos where the smoke had cleared showed whole cul-de-sacs of houses reduced to ash (see The Denver Post's online gallery of photos).

Officials say the Waldo Canyon fire destroyed 346 homes in the Colorado Springs area and killed at least one. Local authorities report several missing from the blaze, and damage assessments are still underway, but given the high temperatures and high winds that fanned the flames, the damage numbers could be higher.

Another striking statistic: City officials ordered 35,000 people to evacuate this week, but only about 400 showed up at public shelters.

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"A lot of people are with friends, family, or strangers who've decided to help," said Colorado Springs resident Buck Snodgrass, who was forced to evacuate with his family and is staying with relatives in Denver. His home has been spared from burning.

Snodgrass' church, the 11,000-member New Life Church, is one of many ministries in the area that stepped up efforts to help those made homeless by the fire. On Friday, New Life was set to receive four semi-trailer loads of supplies-bottled water, food, pet supplies, items for babies, blankets, fresh produce, and personal toiletry items-to distribute to those in need, according to pastor Brady Boyd. The church also has set up a network of housing opportunities for those who've lost their homes.

In addition to forcing the evacuation of the U.S. Air Force Academy earlier this week, the blazes also affected major ministries headquartered in central Colorado. The wildfires forced the evacuation of Eagle Lake Camp and the Glen Eyrie retreat center, both run by The Navigators. Just above Glen Eyrie, the Flying W Ranch, another popular destination, burned to the ground.

"Things are surreal and somewhat chaotic here," reported Dean Ridings of Focus on the Family and president of the Evangelical Press Association. Ridings' own family was evacuated, he said, "with limited time to pack up essentials and make our way east."

Focus on the Family-located west of I-25, the highway that splits Colorado Springs and has become the geographical divide from the fire zone-has taken in Navigators staff and others forced out by the blazes. Evacuation orders for Summit Ministries, located in nearby Manitou Springs, forced its staff and 200 students to relocate to Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, just west of Denver.

At a Friday afternoon briefing at Focus on the Family headquarters, The Navigators' Jack McQueeney, executive director of Glen Eyrie, described the approach of the Waldo Canyon fire to the property long owned by the ministry: "A 75-foot wall of fire was bearing down, but suddenly hung a quick left."

According to the chief firefighter on the scene, the sudden turn "defied all laws of nature." The hillside with a cross on top burned, but the cross, noted McQueeney, survived.

The Navigators evacuated 191 people from its site, and no one on staff was hurt, but the fire destroyed seven houses on the property, according to McQueeney.

The Glen Eyrie retreat center has remained undamaged by the fire, including the 19th century castle built by railroad magnate William Jackson Palmer. The 800-acre property, owned by The Navigators since 1953, is home to its headquarters, its conference center, which hosts about 100 events a year, and the Eagle Lake Camp. The camp had to be evacuated and suffered structural damage in the fire.

The Waldo Canyon fire began last Saturday, and in 24 hours had consumed more than 1,000 acres. A day later it had gobbled up more than 5,000 acres, and by Thursday night, authorities said it had consumed an estimated 16,750 acres-making it the largest in Colorado history. Firefighters say it is only 15 percent contained, but Friday temperatures were lower, humidity was up, and thunderstorms were in the forecast over the weekend. More than 1,000 firefighters are working to shut down the blaze.

In all, wildfires across the state had consumed more than 180,000 acres by Wednesday, as temperatures in the upper 90s and winds gusting up to 65 mph fanned flames in areas that received scant snowfall through the winter. The record low snowfall, combined with early snowmelt-more than a month earlier than normal, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service-have left Rocky Mountain ridgelines combustible. That means wildfire season for Coloradans is probably far from over.

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