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Published July 01 2012

'Unreal': Residents tour Colorado fire devastation

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Melted bowling balls in the front yard were among the strange sights that met C.J. Moore upon her return Sunday to her two-story home, now reduced to ashes by the worst wildfire in Colorado history.

“Which is just hysterical. You wouldn't think bowling balls would melt,” she told the Associated Press by phone from the scene in her Mountain Shadows neighborhood.

Moore was one of many residents allowed temporary visits to the most devastated of the area's neighborhoods. Almost 350 homes burned to the ground last week in the Waldo Canyon fire, one of many still raging across the West.

A line of cars a mile long queued up at a middle school checkpoint, where police checked the identification of returning residents and handed them water bottles.

While searching for her great-grandmother's cast-iron skillets, Moore marveled at the juxtaposition of what burned and what hadn't. She found stainless steel kitchenware, a vase lamp, a concrete frog.

“To find my mail in my mailbox, unscathed. It's just unreal. Unreal,” she said. “Bird baths are fine. Some of the foliage is fine.”

Three neighbors’ homes were unscathed. Only concrete remained of other homes, including hers. Cars were burned to nothing but charred metal.

“Good lord! I've never seen anything like this. And thank God there was nobody there. Thank God there were no people here. There would have been no been no hope.”

About 10,000 people remain evacuated, down from more than 30,000 at the peak of the Waldo Canyon fire, but authorities said Sunday morning they hoped to lift more evacuation orders later in the day.

The 26-square-mile fire was 45 percent contained as of Sunday morning. It was one of many burning across the West.

Rich Harvey, incident commander, said crews continue to make good progress.

“We're cautiously optimistic,” he said Sunday morning. “We still remain focused on things that could go wrong.”

About 1,500 personnel were fighting the Waldo Canyon fire, and authorities said they were confident they had built good fire lines in many areas to stop flames from spreading.

Authorities are still trying to determine the cause of the fire that broke out on June 23, and which so far has cost $8.8 million to battle. Dangerous conditions had kept them from beginning their inquiry, but investigators were able to start their work on Saturday.

Two bodies were found in the ruins of one house, one of almost 350 destroyed in this city 60 miles south of Denver. The victims’ names haven't been released. Police Chief Pete Carey said Saturday afternoon the approximately 10 people who had been unaccounted for had now been located.

Police did not expect to discover other victims in the rubble.

More than 150 National Guard soldiers and airmen helped Colorado Springs police staff roadblocks and patrol streets.

A “bear invasion” confronted a few mountain enclaves west of Colorado Springs. The scent of trash had enticed black bears pushed out of their usual forest habitat by fire.

People who left in a hurry didn't take typical precautions to secure household trash against wildlife, said El Paso County Sheriff's Lt. Jeff Kramer.

“It's been sitting there for, well, approximately a week now. So that's become an attraction for the bears,” Kramer said.

State game officials were trying to shoo the bears out, he said, and Dumpsters were stationed to help volunteers and returning homeowners throw stuff out.

Kramer said he didn't know how many bears were causing problems.

Among the fires elsewhere in the West:

• Utah: Fire commanders say Utah's largest wildfire has consumed more than 150 square miles and shows no sign of burning itself out. Hundreds of firefighters are trying to hold the Clay Springs fire from advancing on the ranching towns of Scipio and Mills on the edge of Utah's west desert. The fire has destroyed one summer home and threatens 75 others. The fire was 48 percent contained on Sunday.

• Montana: Authorities in eastern Montana ordered the evacuation of several communities Saturday as the Ash Creek Complex fires, which has burned more than 70 homes this week, consumed another 72 square miles. The blaze grew to 244 square miles overnight.

• Wyoming: A wind-driven wildfire in a sparsely populated area of southeastern Wyoming exploded from eight square miles to nearly 58 square miles in a single day, and an unknown number of structures have burned. About 200 structures were considered threatened.

• Idaho: A fast-moving 1,000-acre wildfire in eastern Idaho that destroyed 66 homes and 29 outbuildings was expected to be contained Saturday. Some 1,000 residents were evacuated; it was unclear when they would be allowed back.

• Colorado: The last evacuees from the High Park Fire in northern Colorado have been allowed to return home as crews fully contained the blaze. The 136-square-mile fire killed one resident and destroyed 259 houses, a state record until the fire near Colorado Springs destroyed 346 homes.