COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (AP) — A raging Colorado wildfire that forced tens of thousands to flee destroyed an estimated 346 homes this week, making it the most destructive fire in the state's history, officials said Thursday.
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.
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.
President Barack Obama was to tour fire-stricken areas Friday.
From above, the destruction becomes painfully clear: Rows and rows of houses were reduced to smoldering ashes even as some homes just feet (metes) away survived largely intact.
On one street, all but three houses had burned to their foundations, said Ryan Schneider, whose home is still standing in a neighborhood where 51 others were destroyed.
"I was real happy at first. My wife was happy," he said. "The emotion of seeing the other homes, though, was instant sadness."
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.
As of mid-day Thursday, the fire was 10 percent contained. The cost of fighting the blaze had already reached $3.2 million.
Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach said the 346 estimate could change. A fire in northern Colorado, which is 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 the city about 60 miles (96 kilometers) south of Denver.
More than 30,000 people frantically packed up belongings Tuesday night as the flames swept through their neighborhoods. While there's no indication yet the blaze claimed any lives, fire officials said they would search each home looking for possible remains.
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 recognize their street on aerial pictures and carefully scrutinize the images to determine the damage. Photos and video from The Associated Press and the Denver Post showed widespread damage.
Conditions were still too intense 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 29 square miles (75 square kilometers).
Among the fires elsewhere in the West:
— A 72-square-mile (186-square-kilometer) wildfire in central Utah has destroyed at least 56 structures and continues to burn with just 20 percent containment, authorities said. Officials expected the damage estimate to rise as they continue their assessment.
— The smaller fire near St. George started Wednesday and had grown to 2,000 acres (810 hectares) by midnight, forcing some residents to evacuate. The fire was burning about three miles (five kilometers) north of Zion National Park. At least eight structures were destroyed.
— Fire crews in southeastern Montana used a break in the weather to dig containment lines around two wildfires that have burned 200 square miles (518 square kilometers) and dozens of homes.
— A wildfire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest has grown to nearly 36 square miles (93 square kilometers), officials said.
— In northern Colorado, about 1,900 people were being allowed back into their homes Thursday more than two weeks after a devastating fire erupted. The fire killed one woman and destroyed 257 homes, a state record.
Associated Press writers Dan Elliott and Rema Rahman in Denver, Chris Carlson in Colorado Springs, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Whitney Phillips in Salt Lake City, Matthew Brown in Roundup, Montana, and Matt Volz in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.