UPDATE 2-Firefighters make gains in Colorado, evacuees return home

Sat Jun 30, 2012 9:41pm EDT

* Fire is 45 percent contained, officials say

* U.S. Forest Service investigating cause of blaze

* All missing people said to be accounted for

* State's largest blaze now 100 percent contained (Adds largest state fire now fully contained)

By Keith Coffman

DENVER, June 30 (Reuters) - Crews battling a deadly Colorado wildfire ranked the most destructive in state history have made enough headway to allow most evacuees home, but concerns remain about rogue bears and burglaries in vacant houses, officials said on Saturday.

The so-called Waldo Canyon Fire, stoked earlier this week by strong, erratic winds, is now 45 percent contained, although the damage wrought by the blaze has devastated the communities around Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city.

The wildfire has been blamed for two deaths and the destruction of 346 homes, while 35,000 residents were forced to evacuate to escape the threat of flames and heavy smoke.

Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey said all the people unaccounted for in the fire zones have now been located.

The fire has scorched nearly 17,000 acres (6,880 hectares) of timber and brush, much of it in the Pike National Forest west of Colorado Springs, a city of more than 400,000 about 50 miles south of Denver. The cost of battling the blaze stands at $8.8 million, officials said.

Many of the evacuees are being allowed back to their homes, but officials said residents should be alert for bears displaced by the flames. Also, Carey said his department had received 22 reports of burglaries in homes that had been evacuated.

About 10,000 people remain under mandatory evacuation orders.

President Barack Obama, who toured the area on Friday and promised federal assistance, used his weekly radio address on Saturday to ask Americans to contribute to the American Red Cross to help residents displaced by the wildfires.

"We've got to make sure that we are there with them every step of the way, even after this fire is put out," he said.

In another sign that crews are gaining the upper ground battling some of the 11 active wildfires raging in the state, officials on Saturday declared the High Park fire, the largest of them, 100 percent contained and lifted all evacuation orders.

That fire charred 259 homes west of Fort Collins and north of Denver, and torched 87,000 acres (35,235 hectares) of grass, brush and timber.

FAVORABLE WEATHER

Relatively cooler temperatures and lighter winds on Thursday and Friday allowed crews to carve more containment lines.

On Saturday, weather was slightly cooler than forecast so "crews made good progress," said incident commander Rich Harvey.

First reported one week ago, the fire turned deadly and destructive on Tuesday when 65 mile-an-hour winds blew flames across several ridgelines and into the Mountain Shadows subdivision, where the remains of two people were found and the bulk of the property losses occurred.

The number of homes destroyed in the blaze could go up as assessment teams work their way through the charred areas, officials said.

The Waldo Canyon Fire has burned close to the southern edge of the U.S. Air Force Academy, where crews launched an air and ground assault to hold off the flames earlier in the week.

The two deaths brings to six the number of deaths in Colorado wildfires this year, in what Governor John Hickenlooper said was the worst fire season the state has experienced.

The governor signed an executive order allowing the deployment of 160 National Guard troops to help police staff checkpoints and patrol evacuated areas, Carey said.

Lieutenant Jeff Kramer of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office said investigators with the U.S. Forest Service are on site to probe the cause of the blaze.

Despite gains made by firefighters, Harvey warned that with tinder-dry conditions in the region, things could change quickly. "The fire potential in this state and other Western states has the potential to become extreme," Harvey said. (Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Todd Eastham)

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