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2 people shot in JC December 22, 2014

Mayor: Fire destroys 346 homes

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (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.

From above, the destruction becomes painfully clear: Rows and rows of houses were reduced to smoldering ashes even as some homes just feet 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.”

While the aerial photos showed the scope of one of the worst fires to hit the American West in decades, they 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.

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 south of Denver.

“This is going to be a tough evening, but we’re going to get through it,” Bach said. “This community is going to surround them with love and encouragement ... We will move forward as a community.”

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.

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 29 square miles.

The weather forecast offered some optimism for firefighters to make progress, with the temperature expected to reach into the mid-80s — about 5 degrees cooler than Wednesday — and humidity 15 to 20 percent, about 5 points higher. Winds were forecast to be 10 to 15 mph.

As of mid-day Thursday, the fire was only 10 percent contained. The cost of fighting the blaze had already reached $3.2 million.

The fire blackened up to 50 acres 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 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.

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