* More favorable weather allows fire crews to gain ground
* Some 20,000 homes are still threatened by the flames
* 347 homes already destroyed, a record for Colorado
* Some 50 large uncontained wildfires burning across U.S.
(Recasting; updates containment figure; new quotes, details)
By Keith Coffman and Jeff Mason
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., June 29 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 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 with an Air Force One
fly-over of the area left devastated by a blaze that has raged
for a week near the base of the famed Pikes Peak mountaintop,
while fire crews, taking advantage of more favorable weather,
gained additional ground against the flames.
The so-called Waldo Canyon Fire unleashed its greatest fury
on Tuesday night when, stoked by strong, erratic winds, it
roared into 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,
numbering over 1,000 by week's end, make greater headway in
corralling the flames. By Friday afternoon, they had managed to
carve containment lines around 25 percent of the fire's
perimeter, up from 15 percent on Thursday.
As of Friday, the fire had 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 inhabitants about 50 miles south of Denver.
While fire officials said 20,000 homes remained threatened
by the blaze, evacuation orders were lifted for some of the
estimated 35,000 residents chased from their dwellings earlier
But progress against the blaze was accompanied by grim news
as authorities confirmed the full extent of destruction from
Tuesday's firestorm - 347 homes destroyed, most of them in the
upscale subdivision known as Mountain Shadows.
The tally of homes consumed by the Waldo Canyon blaze ranks
as the most on record for Colorado, surpassing the 257 homes
destroyed recently by a much larger blaze north of Denver.
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
Also on Friday, Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey
said a second body was found in the debris of a burned-out home.
The discovery of the first was announced late on Thursday.
Their deaths 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.
FIRE ACROSS THE WEST
"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.
The president capped his trip by visiting with evacuees at
an emergency shelter operated by the American Red Cross.
One of them, Angi Stoffel, 39, recalled the terrifying
moments before she and her family were forced to flee.
"The grass back behind our house has been burned, so I guess
we're kind of close," she said. "That first night was horrible.
It was very scary, so we went all the way to Pueblo just to get
away and try to get our thoughts together and get a game plan."
Waldo Canyon was among nearly 50 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.
As of Thursday, 21 heavy airplane tankers continued to fly
in and out of firefighting action across the Western states,
joining 170 helicopters, 550 fire engines and more than 8,800
personnel on wildfire lines around the country, said White House
spokesman Jay Carney. He said about half of all active federal
wildfire-fighting resources were currently staged in Colorado.
Obama announced that federal money would be made available
to local agencies and individuals affected by the fire.
"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 whether any of the wildfires were
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 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 and Todd Eastham)