DENVER Firefighters battling a deadly Colorado wildfire that ranks as the most destructive in state history have made enough headway to allow most residents forced to flee the blaze back into their homes, officials said on Saturday.
The so-called Waldo Canyon Fire, stoked earlier this week by strong, erratic winds, is now nearly 30 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 some 35,000 residents have been forced to evacuate to escape the threat of flames and heavy smoke.
The fire has scorched nearly 17,000 acres 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.
Many of the evacuees are now being allowed back to their homes, although officials said displaced residents have reported that their residences were burglarized while they were 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.
Relatively cooler temperatures and lighter winds on Thursday and Friday allowed crews to carve containment lines around nearly one-third of the blaze, said incident commander Rich Harvey.
"The fire is moving in a good direction," Harvey said.
However, near triple-digit temperatures, lower humidity and gusty winds forecast for Saturday will challenge crews, he said.
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 located, 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, Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete 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. Most of the fire is burning in the Pike National Forest.
Residents of Mountain Shadows will be bused into the area on Sunday to view the damage, but will not be allowed to get out survey their homes up close because the devastated neighborhood is still smoldering, said fire spokesman Greg Heule.
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Jackie Frank)