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1 dead as Colorado wildfire destroys over 300 homes, making it most destructive fire in state history

Coloradofires.jpg

June 27, 2012: A plume of smoke rises behind homes on the Waldo Canyon wildfire west of Colorado Springs, Colo.AP

A raging wildfire that forced tens of thousands to flee has left at least one person dead and destroyed an estimated 346 homes this week, making it the most destructive fire in the state's history, officials said.

Police Chief Pete Carey said late Thursday the remains of one person were found in a home where two people had been reported missing. He didn't elaborate or take questions after making the announcement late Thursday.

From above, the fire's destruction was painfully clear: Rows and rows of houses were reduced to smoldering ashes even as some homes just feet away survived largely intact.

At a meeting Thursday night, Rebekah and Byron Largent learned from lists distributed by authorities that their home was among those that burned Tuesday, their daughter Emma's first birthday.

"Our minds just started sifting through all the memories of that house that we lost that can't be replaced," Rebekah Largent said. She remembered her wedding dress, a grandmother's china, the rocking chair where the couple would sit with Emma.

The aerial photos showing the scope of one of the worst fires to hit the American West in decades did little to help ease the concerns of many residents who still did not know the fate of homes.

Amid the devastation in the foothills of Colorado Springs, there were hopeful signs. Flames advancing on the U.S. Air Force Academy were stopped and cooler conditions could help slow the fire.

The fire was 15 percent contained Thursday night. The cost of fighting the blaze had already reached $3.2 million.

Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach said the estimate of 346 homes could change. A fire in northern Colorado, which was still burning, destroyed 257 homes and until Thursday was the most destructive in state history.

For now, Bach said, the news of the destruction would make it very difficult for affected residents in the city about 60 miles south of Denver.

"This community is going to surround them with love and encouragement," Bach said.

More than 30,000 people frantically packed up belongings Tuesday night as the flames swept through their neighborhoods.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation said two people have been arrested in connection with a burglary at an evacuated home. Belinda Yates and Shane Garrett were being held on charges including second-degree burglary and possession of methamphetamine.

Community officials were planning to begin the process of notifying residents Thursday that their homes were destroyed. For many residents, the official notification was a formality.

Residents recognized their streets on aerial pictures and carefully scrutinized the images to determine the damage. Photos and video from The Associated Press and The Denver Post showed widespread damage.

Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city, is home to the U.S. Olympic Training Center, NORAD and the Air Force Space Command, which operates military satellites. They were not threatened.

Conditions were still too dicey to allow authorities to begin trying to figure out what sparked the blaze that has raged for much of the week and already burned more than 26 square miles (67 sq. kilometers).

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster late Thursday, making federal funding available in Colorado Springs' El Paso County as well as Larimer County, where a fire that erupted two weeks ago killed a woman and destroyed 257 homes.

Obama was to tour fire-stricken areas Friday as hundreds of locals and some tourists who were staying at Red Cross shelters hoped life would return to normal. Others stayed with friends and family.

The weather forecast offered some optimism for firefighters to make progress, with the temperature expected to reach into the mid-80s (27 Celsius) -- about 5 degrees cooler than Wednesday.

The fire blackened up to 50 acres (20 hectares) along the southwest boundary of the Air Force Academy campus, said Anne Rys-Sikora, a spokeswoman for the firefighters. No injuries or damage to structures -- including the iconic Cadet Chapel -- were reported.

Fort Carson, an Army infantry post about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the academy, sent 120 soldiers along with bulldozers and other heavy equipment to help clear a line to stop the fire on the academy. Rys-Sikora said the academy was not getting a disproportionate share of equipment and firefighters.

The Flying W Ranch, a popular tourist attraction near Colorado Springs, was severely damaged in the blaze. But authorities let people into the area to check on cattle. John Hendrix, who volunteers at the Flying W, said 47 animals were accounted for.

"Some of them are pretty scorched up, but they are still there. We didn't lose one," Hendrix said.

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