A second person was declared dead as a result of a ravenous fire that destroyed 347 homes in a Colorado Springs neighborhood on Tuesday, making it the most destructive wildfire in the state's history. As firefighters had succeeded in pushing the fire back into the mountains, President Obama visited the city, stopping in to see some of the 32,500 evacuees across El Paso County and taking a tour of the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, where numerous homes were consumed by flames, leaving nothing but gray rubble surrounded by seared, black lawns. Obama then stopped in to visit with some firefighters before Air Force One departed from Peterson Air Force Base.
A second body was discovered Friday afternoon in the same remains of a charred home in which the first body, also the first official casualty, in Mountain Shadows. Officials have not released the names of the deceased. At just under 17,000 acres from the last official estimate, the Waldo Canyon fire that tore through northwest Colorado Springs this week and threatened the Air Force Academy is far from the biggest wildfire in Colorado history. But in terms of destruction, the 347 homes burned up on Tuesday are nearly 100 more than the second most destructive, the High Park fire.
Ironically, the High Park is also still burning, northwest of Denver just to the west of Ft. Collins. The High Park was announced contained on Thursday, after burning just over 87,000 acres in northern Colorado. That burn area places the High Park second in terms of Colorado's biggest fires, behind the 2002 Hayman fire that seared 138,000 acres, starting just 35 miles northwest of Colorado Springs. Solid progress appeared to have been made on the Waldo Canyon fire Thursday, with several evacuations being lifted and some more suitable weather for fighting a fire, as winds did not gust at over 60 miles an hour like they did Tuesday. These wind gusts drove the Waldo Canyon down the mountains and into Mountain Shadows, with some witnesses estimating that the fire advanced three miles in just forty-five minutes.
The summer of 2012 has provided the perfect weather for wildfires to pop up and quickly blow up to these massive proportions, and there are currently dozens of wildfires burning not only in Colorado, but also in Utah, Wyoming and Montana as well. In fact, with high temperatures and very low humidity across the Mountain West region, 32 fires were reported starting, with two of those having the potential to grow into major fires. In addition, the National Interagency Fire Center raised its rating on fire danger and preparedness from 3 to 4, marking just the third time in twenty years the rating has been this high before July began. One of the other two was 2002, the year the Hayman fire scarred the Colorado landscape.
At last count, more than 8,800 firefighting personnel are actively battling blazes across the West, tying up more than half of the nation's 15,000 trained firefighters. With the help of over 1,000 firefighters doing battle with the Waldo fire, officials announced 25 percent containment on the fire Friday and did not raise the official estimate for the fire's size. There are 47 active wildfires burning across the West and in South Dakota as of Friday afternoon. The number of fires so far this year as well as the acreage destroyed are still well below the averages from the last ten years, but the fire season has really only just begun, according to wildfire experts.