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Obama Visits Colorado’s Wildfire Sites

June 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama traveled to Colorado to assess the damages wreaked by record-breaking wildfires. One person has died in the fires and more than 300 homes were destroyed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The worst fire in Colorado history kept on burning today, after consuming hundreds of homes. A thousand firefighters worked to corral the flames, as the president viewed the devastation from the air and on the ground.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The people of Colorado Springs still were reeling today from the destruction, 347 homes burned to ashes in the Waldo Canyon firestorm.

WOMAN: I know it’s gone, but it has been there for 13 years. And that’s hard.

MAN: That’s a difficult conversation to have with your children, to say, you don’t have a house to go back to.

KWAME HOLMAN: And late last night, police Chief Peter Carey also reported the first confirmed death from the fire.

PETER CAREY, Colorado Springs, Colo., chief of police: Unfortunately, the remains of one human being — one human being was discovered in the debris. The search continues. We have informed family members.

KWAME HOLMAN: Flames consumed row after row of houses, after the fire roared out of control Tuesday night, driven by high winds. The scale of the disaster was evident in these images taken Thursday from the International Space Station.

Enormous plumes of smoke rose over the state. Yesterday, and again today, the weather cooperated, and crews were able to keep the fire from spreading beyond its 26 square miles.

JERRI MARR, U.S. Forest Service supervisor: We are able to up our containment now to at least 15 percent, and I know people may go, 15 percent? And 15 percent is a lot, based on the type of terrain that we’re dealing with here today. We feel with a lot of confidence based on the weather that we will be able to even up that number even more by the end of the day.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Obama got his own look at the situation today, spending three hours on the ground in Colorado Springs.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As I just told these firefighters, what we can’t do is to provide them with the courage, and the determination, and the professionalism, the heart that they show when they are out there battling these fires.

When we had a chance on site to see some guys who had just saved three homes in a community that had been devastated, for those families, the work and the sacrifice of those firefighters means the world to them. And they are genuine heroes.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president also made federal funds available to help the victims, but at a Thursday meeting, tempers flared among some of the more than 30,000 evacuees, who just want to go home.

MAN: Now, I looked this up. I’m not flying off the cuff here. I have rights as a property owner. I’m asking you to respect those rights and not have anybody arrested, to include myself, if I so choose to cross that line.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, investigators are using video of what may be the fire’s beginning witnessed by cyclists to determine how it started.

LT. JEFF KRAMER, El Paso County Sheriff’s Office: When the event really started to unfold quickly and we had a lot of smoke, that’s not extremely valuable, but that very first initial line of smoke, single line of smoke, is.

KWAME HOLMAN: To the north, the massive High Park fire near Fort Collins now is 85 percent contained. Evacuees trying to get back and see the damage there have waited in long lines. Nearly 260 homes were destroyed in that blaze.

And a huge wildfire in Montana now has burned more than 110,000 acres and is only 5 percent contained. It, like many fires burning in the West, was ignited by lightning.