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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday promised federal assistance for Colorado's worst-ever wildfire as he toured damage caused by the blaze, which has killed at least two people, destroyed hundreds of homes and forced the evacuation of 35,000 residents in and around the state's second-largest city.
Obama began his three-hour visit to the area devastated by a still largely uncontrolled fire with a fly-over in Air Force One, surveying part of the Rocky Mountains where smoke could be seen rising from what officials say is the most destructive blaze in state history.
The so-called Waldo Canyon Fire, fanned by strong, erratic winds, roared Tuesday night through foothill communities in the northwestern corner of Colorado Springs and threatened the U.S. Air Force Academy campus in town.
Lighter winds since then have helped firefighters make progress against the flames, but the blaze remained just 15 percent contained on Friday afternoon.
Aerial photos of devastation unleashed by the fire showed large swaths of neighborhoods reduced to gray ash - one house after another obliterated while adjacent dwellings survived mostly unscathed.
"This has been a devastating early fire season for Colorado. This community, obviously, is heartbroken by the loss of homes," Obama said to reporters as he walked along a street of burned-out houses. "We're lucky, because of the quick action that's been taken, that we haven't seen a lot of loss of life."
Obama's motorcade drove through a neighborhood dotted with houses that remained intact next to others that had burned to the ground, rolling past the melted remains of a children's play area and shells of cars destroyed in the inferno.
Authorities confirmed the full extent of destruction on Friday, with 347 homes destroyed and more than 20,000 homes still threatened by the blaze.
Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey said on Friday that two bodies were found in the debris of a burned-out home, marking the first two known deaths from the blaze. Those victims bring to six the number of people who have perished so far this year in a Colorado wildfire season described by the governor as the worst ever in the state.
The tally of homes consumed by the Waldo Canyon blaze ranks as the most on record, surpassing the 257 homes destroyed recently by a much larger blaze north of Denver.
Waldo Canyon was among more than 40 large, uncontained wildfires being fought across the United States, the bulk of them in 10 western states - Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, South Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and even Hawaii, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Searing temperatures and strong, erratic winds stoked the Waldo Canyon blaze earlier this week, burning about 17,000 acres of timber and brush, much of it in the Pike National Forest at the base of the famed Pikes Peak mountaintop.
Federal agencies have mobilized massive C-130 military air tankers to help fight the fire, joining more than 1,200 firefighters, heavy air tankers and helicopters. Nearby Army base Fort Carson sent 120 soldiers to help battle the blaze, and the Forest Service is training more soldiers for the effort.
Obama announced that federal money would be made available to local agencies and individuals affected by the fire.
While a red-flag warning for heightened fire hazards has been lifted, anguish and frustration ran high among many of the estimated 35,000 residents who had to be evacuated from homes.
"You don't have the authority to keep me out of my house," David Dougherty, 45, a U.S. military veteran, shouted during a news conference on Thursday. "I understand they're trying to save lives, but some of us don't need to be saved."
Dougherty said he believed his dwelling was still intact and wanted to be let back in to the evacuation zone to secure his home and his belongings. Police reported at least two arrests for burglary in an evacuated neighborhood.
"We have been putting everything we have into trying to deal with what is one of the worst fires we've seen here in Colorado," Obama said, speaking at a fire station where he shook hands with firefighters and praised them for their courage. But he added: "We've still got a lot more work to do."
While authorities began allowing some evacuees to return Thursday night, hundreds of residents from neighborhoods caught in the heart of a major firestorm on Tuesday remained displaced.
The FBI is investigating if any of the wildfires was started by criminal activity, but the cause remains unknown.
The fire menacing Colorado Springs follows a recent string of suspected arson fires in a neighboring county, but officials said they had no indication that the blaze was deliberately set.
Although federal authorities say the fire season got off to an early start in parts of the Northern Rockies, the number of fires and acreage burned nationwide is still below the 10-year average for this time of year, according to fire agency records.
Additional reporting by Joseph O'Leary and Ellen Miller; Writing by Mary Slosson; Editing by Paul Simao