COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- As President Barack Obama arrived Friday to tour the aftermath of the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, fire crews said they were slowly hemming in the blaze and beginning to reopen a few neighborhoods where residents had fled gales of ash and smoke.
Although plumes of smoke still curled skyward from the mountains above Colorado's second-largest city, local authorities said the 17,000-acre blaze was not spreading and had been 25 percent contained. And some of the 32,000 people evacuated earlier this week returned home, unloading the suitcases, photo albums and pets they had hurriedly packed up as the fires descended down the hillsides.
But as officials reported tentative progress, they also offered a clearer picture of the extent of the damage. At least two bodies were found in a burned home, and as many as 10 other people were unaccounted for. More than 340 homes have been destroyed. Aerial photographs published by The Denver Post showed blocks of subdivisions reduced to ash and splinters, some homes standing intact while the ones next door were burned flat.
In some of the worst-hit neighborhoods, which Mr. Obama visited, expensive homes had collapsed into heaps of rubble, only their chimneys still standing. Burned trees stood like charred skeletons, and shells of abandoned cars sat in the streets.
"In some of these subdivisions, the devastation is enormous," Mr. Obama said in brief remarks after he walked in the area. "It's still early in the fires season, and we've still got a lot of work to do."
On Friday, Mr. Obama declared a national disaster in the Colorado Springs region and in another fire-stricken county in northern Colorado, making them eligible for federal funds.
The blaze, known as the Waldo Canyon fire, is only one of nearly five dozen wildfires raging across the arid West. The unusually fierce early-season fires have placed a heavy strain on the government's firefighting resources, prompting criticism by some Republican politicians that the Forest Service was not moving quickly enough to corral additional large air tankers to douse the blazes.
"Every hour that goes by is an hour that could be that turning point," Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., said in an interview. "That's what's so doggone frustrating."
In northern Colorado, firefighters were still struggling to contain a sprawling blaze in the foothills outside Fort Collins, home to Colorado State University. In western Colorado, a blaze erupted outside Grand Junction along Interstate 70, the state's major east-west artery, and quickly grew to 12,000 acres, prompting 50 calls for evacuation.
Throughout the day, as evacuees in Colorado Springs passed time on shelter cots or downed cup after cup of coffee, fire crews said they were focused on trying to contain another flank of the fire. Helicopters and tankers buzzed through hazy skies west of the city, and Rich Harvey, the fire's incident commander, said crews were "putting muscle on the ground in front of this fire."
Even without any rain, fire officials said lighter breezes and less intense temperatures were helping their efforts.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Colorado Springs residents who had been forced to evacuate learned at a meeting Thursday night whether their homes had been gutted or had survived.
The owners of the Flying W Ranch, which hosted popular cowboy-themed suppers and summertime concerts, said the ranch had burned to the ground, and two members of the Flying W Wranglers, a musical cowboy quartet, had lost their homes.
"We ask that you pray for all the families within the area," the ranch's staff wrote in a message on its website, "and we assure you we will do our best to hopefully rebuild."
Other residents, such as Timitra Stewart, 32, were still in the dark but feared the worst. "It looks like my house is gone," said Ms. Stewart, a stay-at-home mother of four. She said she was chased from her hillside home in the Wilson Ranch neighborhood by a "volcanic eruption" of advancing flames. "It came down that hill so fast," she said. "We were covered in smoke. The flames were right there."
Ms. Stewart said she had bundled her children into her car with a few belongings and raced away. She has not been home since Tuesday.
With scant insurance to cover her belongings, she said she dreaded what she'd find when she returned home. "It's devastating for all of us," she said.