Obama Visits Colorado In Wake Of Fires

President Obama visited Colorado Springs on Friday to survey the damage caused by the Waldo Canyon fire, which burned more than 300 homes.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. President Obama was in Colorado Springs today to get a firsthand look at the destruction caused by the huge wildfire there. The Waldo Canyon fire has burned hundreds of homes and scorched nearly 17,000 acres of forest and grassland. Standing near a burnt-out house in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, the president thanked firefighters for their efforts.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When you think about 18-hour days, you know, the kind of effort that these guys are putting in and the danger that they're putting themselves under, it's a testament to our Forest Service and our firefighters, and, you know, we just got to make sure that we're giving them the best equipment, all the resources that they need, but what we can't give them is their courage. They bring that to the table from the start.

BLOCK: Two deaths have been linked to the fire. Police say they found a body yesterday in a burned home where two people had been reported missing. Today a second body was found there. NPR's Jeff Brady reports that thousands of people are still evacuating even though crews are making progress on the fire.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Even with temperatures in the mid-90s and humidity in the teens, there was barely a wind blowing for much of the day. That's helping fire crews build breaks to stop the flames from spreading. Rich Harvey is incident commander for the Waldo Canyon fire. He says the federal government has sent more aircraft, such as tanker planes, to Colorado.

RICH HARVEY: That does not necessarily mean they will be assigned to this incident, as we are supporting fires up and down the Front Range. A new fire started last night in Grand Junction, so we share air assets.

BRADY: The Waldo Canyon fire area is huge, about four miles across and seven miles long. Over that terrain, Jerri Mar, with the Forest Service, says the fire is burning at various levels.

JERRI MARR: And dependent on where you are, it may look a little different. You're going to still see smoke in some areas. It's going to be hazy in other areas. You're going to still see flames in some areas as well. It really all depends. And also, what you see is going to depend on the time of day.

BRADY: In the morning when humidity is highest, the fire tends to calm down. Then in the afternoon as the temperature rises and the wind picks up, flames can spread. Fire officials say it's been a couple days since the boundary of the Waldo Canyon fire has expanded, and they've been able to keep the flames away from houses. Originally, more than 30,000 people were evacuated. Some are now allowed to return, but thousands more, like Jeff Rayer, still can't go home.

JEFF RAYER: If electricity is off, it'd be nice to go in and, you know, for people to get, you know, clean out the refrigerators, maybe, dump that stuff out.

BRADY: Rayer lives in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. There are parts of it that look like a moonscape of gray dust where houses used to stand. But from aerial pictures, Rayer says other parts, including his street, look pretty good.

RAYER: From what I've seen, there's sections of Mountain Shadows where the whole neighborhood is still intact, and there doesn't appear to be any major damage. So, you know, it's like, can we at least get in and get some belongings, you know, and see our houses?

BRADY: Colorado Springs officials say they are lifting evacuations as quickly as they can. Beyond putting out fires, they need to make sure all the utilities are safe before allowing residents back. The Forest Service is leading the investigation into what caused the Waldo Canyon fire. The blaze started last Saturday, but this morning, police said investigators still couldn't get in to do their work because conditions in that area are not safe. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Colorado Springs.

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