President Barack Obama says that when disasters such as the Waldo Canyon Fire strike, "America comes together."
Obama on Friday visited subdivisions hit by the worst wildfire in Colorado's history. He toured neighborhoods of charred homes with plumes of smoke visible in the nearby mountains.
Video shot from a vehicle that traveled with Obama showed trees with bare branches surrounding homes gutted by flames.
The motorcade stopped at Majestic Drive for Obama to shake hands with a dozen firefighters. They pointed out different parts of the neighborhood that were lost and also some of the homes that survived.
"What did you guys do to protect these homes? Give me a sense of how you went about it," Obama asked the firefighters.
A firefighter then described dousing the houses with water and the decision to let some homes burn.
"There was so much heat from that house, we couldn't protect that," a firefighter said.
"I tell you what. Those families ... you made a difference in their lives," Obama said regarding the homes that survived the hopscotch nature of the flames.
The firefighters and Obama stopped to take a group photo before the president headed to the airport.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Doug Lamborn, Sen. Mark Udall, and Sen. Michael Bennet joined Obama throughout his tour.
He addressed the media around 1:30 p.m. and said these are the moments when America has to come together.
"The devastation is enormous, and our thoughts and prayers go out to all the families that are affected," Obama said.
Obama viewed the scene from above as his airplane made its descent into Colorado. Plumes of smoke from the mountains were visible as Obama arrived.
"We have been putting everything we have into trying to deal with what's one of the worst fires that we've seen here in Colorado, and it's still early in the fire season and we still have a lot of work to do," he said.
Obama declared a "major disaster" in the state early Friday and promised federal aid.
"I think what you see here is an example of outstanding coordination and cooperation with federal, state, and local agencies," Obama said.
Obama has been in contact with Hickenlooper and Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach.
The Waldo Canyon Fire has destroyed an estimated 346 homes, making it the most destructive blaze in Colorado, and forced 30,000 people to flee. A fire near Fort Collins has destroyed more than 250 homes and burned 136 square miles. About 1,900 people displaced by that fire began returning to their neighborhoods Thursday, and firefighters expected to have the blaze contained by this weekend.
Some Call Obama's Visit A Political Stunt
Colorado is one of the nation's top swing states and expected to be heavily contested by Obama and Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney this year.
Obama's visit drew criticism from former Colorado Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who was in office in 2002 when the state went through another historic wildfire season. Owens said Obama's visit was "ill-advised because it will divert time, equipment, energy and resources away from actually fighting the fire at a time when that should be our only focus."
Owens said that in 2002, he declined an offer for a visit from former President George W. Bush.
"The president therefore did not come, which allowed us to concentrate on fighting the fires, given the huge challenges we were facing," Owens said.
The White House responded with a statement saying that Obama and his team are "are always sensitive to ensuring his visits to emergency response areas do not in any way impede the response." The statement says Obama wants to thank first responders and ask if they need additional resources.
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said Obama was emphatic when he called and asked to visit that he did not want to be a distraction. Hickenlooper also said the president did not want to take any political questions while in Colorado.
"He wants to make the focus of this the firefighters and the people who have been displaced," Hickenlooper said. "He wants to just support them, hear their stories, do whatever he can to support them and demonstrate to them that the country is in their court."
Bach said he welcomed the president's visit.
"I really appreciate the president coming here as I appreciated the governor coming here the other night. If nothing more, just to reassure us that this is a focus at the national level, that there are people all across this country who are concerned for our citizens and those that have lost their homes and I do plan to ask for cash," Bach said.
Jeff Rayer, a resident of the hard-hit Mount Shadows neighborhood, questioned the need for a visit by the president.
"It seems to me it's a photo opp. To me it seems what he's doing he could've done over the phone," Rayer said.
"My neighbor posted on Facebook, 'If I see Obama standing in front of my burned-out house before I get to see it I'm going to be very upset."'
Rich Harvey, the incident commander in charge of the firefighting effort, said fire managers coordinated with the White House to ensure Air Force One won't hinder helicopters and tankers dropping water and flame retardant.
El Paso County sheriff's Lt. Jeff Kramer said deputies worked with the Secret Service to provide security after police Chief Pete Carey said he couldn't spare the officers.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., whose district includes the Waldo Canyon Fire, accompanied Obama aboard Air Force One and during Obama's tour.
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