COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Firefighters went from one smoldering pile to another Friday in search of bodies in the nearly 350 homes burned to the ground by the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.
As crews on the front lines made slow but steady progress against the flames, Police Chief Pete Carey said fewer than 10 people altogether were unaccounted for. The remains of one person were found Thursday in what was left standing of one home, and a second person who lived there was missing.
The 26-square-mile blaze -- one of several wildfires burning out of control across the tinder-dry West -- was reported to be 15 percent contained, and authorities began lifting some of the evacuation orders for the more than 30,000 people who fled their homes a few days ago.
After growing explosively earlier in the week, the fire gained no ground overnight, authorities reported Friday. And the weather was clear and mostly calm, a welcome break from the lightning and high wind that drove the flames.
"The focus for today is to hold what we got," extend the fire lines to contain more of the blaze, and bring in more heavy equipment, said Rich Harvey, incident commander for the fire.
Exhausted firefighters fresh off the front lines described the devastation in some neighborhoods and the challenges of battling such a huge blaze.
"It looks like hell. I would imagine it felt like a nuclear bomb went off. There was fire everywhere. Everything had a square shape to it because it was foundations," said Rich Rexach, who had been working 12-hour days since Tuesday, when flames swept through neighborhoods in this city of more than 400,000 people 60 miles south of Denver.
"Everything you put water on, it was just swallowing it," he said.
President Barack Obama toured the stricken areas Friday after issuing a disaster declaration for Colorado that frees up federal funds. He thanked firefighters and other emergency workers, saying: "The country is grateful for your work. The country's got your back."
As residents waited anxiously to see what was left of their homes, police reported several burglaries in evacuated areas, along with break-ins of cars packed with evacuees' possessions outside hotels.
Community leaders began notifying residents Thursday that their homes were destroyed. Lists of the heavily damaged streets were posted at a high school, and residents scanned the sheets, but for many, the notification was a formality. They had already recognized their streets on the aerial pictures that appeared in the news.
"The blanket that was on my bed when I grew up, a bunch of things my mother had made," said Rick Spraycar, listing what he lost when his house in the hard-hit Mountain Shadows subdivision burned down. "It's hard to put it into words. Everything I owned. Memories."
For Ernie Storti the pain of knowing that his was one of a handful of homes spared in his neighborhood was hard.
"Our home was standing, and everything south of us was gone," he said as tears streamed down his face outside a Red Cross Shelter where he had met with insurance agents.
Authorities were still trying to figure out what caused the fire. They said conditions were too dangerous to allow them in to start their investigation.
More than 1,000 personnel and six helicopters were fighting the fire.
All eight Air Force firefighting planes from four states will be at Colorado Springs' Peterson Air Force Base Saturday and available to fight the fire, marking the first time the entire fleet has been activated since 2008, Col. Jerry Champlin said.