By Keith Coffman and Jeff Mason
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday described as a "major disaster" a Colorado wildfire that has destroyed 347 homes and forced the evacuation of 35,000 people near the state's second-largest city, as he toured the devastation left by the blaze.
Before landing, Air Force One flew over part of the Rocky Mountains where smoke could be seen rising from the areas ravaged by what officials say is the most destructive blaze in state history. At least one death has been blamed on the fire.
The blaze had roared unchecked on Tuesday night through communities in the northwestern corner of the city and threatened the U.S. Air Force Academy campus.
Lighter winds were helping firefighters make progress, but the fire remained just 15 percent contained on Friday afternoon.
Aerial photos of devastation unleashed by the so-called Waldo Canyon Fire showed large swaths of neighborhoods reduced to gray ash - one house after another obliterated while adjacent dwellings survived mostly unscathed.
"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 homes. "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 survived the fires 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.
Authorities confirmed the full extent of destruction on Friday, with 347 houses gutted by fire and more than 20,000 homes still threatened by the blaze.
Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey said a body was found in the debris of a burned-out home, marking the first known death from the blaze. The person became the fifth killed this year in a Colorado wildfire season described by the governor as the worst ever in the state.
Two people were reported missing at the residence where a body was found on Thursday, Carey said, noting that less than 10 people remained missing.
The tally of homes consumed by the Waldo Canyon blaze ranks as the most on record, surpassing the 257 homes destroyed by a much larger blaze north of Denver near Fort Collins.
RASH OF WILDFIRES ACROSS COUNTRY
Waldo Canyon was among more than 40 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.
In western Colorado, the size of the Pine Ridge Fire northeast of Grand Junction grew overnight to 10,000 acres from 1,500 the day before.
Searing temperatures and strong, erratic winds stoked the Waldo Canyon blaze earlier this week, burning at least 18,500 acres of timber and brush, much of it in the Pike National Forest at the base of the famed Pikes Peak mountaintop.
Federal agencies have mobilized massive C-130 military airtankers to help fight the fire, joining more than 1,200 firefighters, heavy air tankers and helicopters dropping flame-retardant chemicals. Nearby Army base Fort Carson sent 120 soldiers to help battle the blaze.
Obama announced that federal money would be made available to local agencies and individuals affected by the fire.
While a red-flag warning for heightened fire hazards that had been in place since the fire erupted was lifted, anguish and frustration ran high among many of the estimated 35,000 residents who had to be evacuated from homes.
"You don't have the authority to keep me out of my house," David Dougherty, 45, a retired member of the Armed Forces, shouted out during a news conference. "I understand they're trying to save lives, but some of us don't need to be saved."
Dougherty said he believed his dwelling was still intact and wanted to be let back in to the evacuation zone to secure his home and his belongings. Police reported at least two arrests for burglary in an evacuated neighborhood.
SOME EVACUEES RETURN, OTHERS LEFT HOMELESS
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 if any of the wildfires was 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 that 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; Editing by Mary Slosson and Paul Simao)
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