People return to charred cities after Colorado wildfires

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. Mon Jul 2, 2012 12:45pm EDT

1 of 12. Plumes of smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire rise in front of a sunset in Colorado Springs, Colorado on July 1, 2012. Residents began returning to charred areas of Colorado Springs on Sunday after the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history forced tens of thousands of people from their homes and left the landscape a blackened wasteland. The so-called Waldo Canyon Fire has scorched 17,659 acres (7,149 hectares), burned 346 homes and devastated communities around Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city, since it began eight days ago.

Credit: Reuters/Adrees Latif

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - Residents began returning to charred areas of Colorado Springs on Sunday after the most destructive wildfire in Colorado's history forced tens of thousands of people from their homes and left the landscape a blackened wasteland.

Bears and burglars posed further danger to home owners who headed back to towns and cities after the fire, which killed two people.

The so-called Waldo Canyon Fire has scorched 17,659 acres, burned 346 homes and devastated communities around Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city, since it began eight days ago.

Governor John Hickenlooper said he believed the worst was over and almost all of the blazes around Colorado were under control.

"Now we're beginning to look at how do we rebuild and begin the recovery. But we also know that Mother Nature can be pretty fickle out there, so we're keeping ourselves very alert," Hickenlooper told CNN's "State of the Union."

Two more houses were looted overnight in the Colorado Springs area for a total of 24 during the disaster that forced an estimated 32,000 residents to evacuate, authorities said.

To maintain order, 165 National Guard troops were on the ground under orders from President Barack Obama, who toured the area on Friday.

Many of those allowed to stay home remained without power.

Colorado Springs residents from the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, where many homes were destroyed, were being allowed back to view their properties during the day on Sunday, but were being required to clear the area by 6 p.m.

Mandatory evacuation orders were being lifted for some other parts of the city effective Sunday night and by evening dozens of vehicles could be seen winding their way up roads that had been closed for days.

About 3,000 residents remained forced out of their homes on Sunday afternoon, officials said, adding that among areas that were reopening to the public were the Pike's Peak highway and Garden of the Gods park.

"It was emotional for those who didn't lose their homes and for those who did," said Steve Cox, a member of the mayor's executive team in Colorado Springs. "The strategy is to continue to shrink the focus area down."

RESTORING SERVICES

Scott Gregory, who lives just outside the Mountain Shadows neighborhood and was returning to his home on Sunday, said the hairs on the back of his neck "rose up" last week as he watched the fire rolled over the hills nearly into his neighborhood.

Gregory, who had 30 minutes to pack essential items and leave his house last week in the Rockrimmon neighborhood, said he was "really saddened for the folks who lost their homes."

"It was terrible watching their houses burn down," he said. Gregory's own house was spared damage.

Electricity and water service has been restored to most residences where people are being allowed to return home, but gas service has not yet been restored.

The governor described the devastation he saw flying over the Pike National Forest west of Colorado Springs, a city of more than 400,000 about 50 miles south of Denver.

"It was like your worst nightmare of a movie, trying to show what the Apocalypse or Armageddon would look like," Hickenlooper said on CNN.

"I thought it was trees burning, as we got closer it was homes."

Firefighters remain challenged by a wildfire in Grand Junction in western Colorado, the only one of seven wildfires that was not yet under control, he said.

The largest of the 11 active Colorado wildfires, called the High Park Fire, has consumed nearly 88,000 acres just west of Fort Collins and is now considered fully contained. There were 259 homes lost to the High Park Fire.

About 150 firefighters remained on the ground for the High Park Fire, about one-tenth the number working to contain the Waldo Canyon Fire in and near Colorado Springs.

"We are cautiously optimistic. The perimeter is stable," Waldo Canyon Fire Incident commander Rich Harvey told reporters early on Sunday, adding that there was some danger from bears wandering about, possibly displaced by the fires.

(Reporting by Kim Palmer and Vicki Allen; Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Tom Brown, Cynthia Osterman and David Brunnstrom)

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