COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — President Barack Obama will tour wildfire-stricken Colorado Friday, where thousands of people have been displaced by out-of-control blazes.
The president’s visit comes as about half of the active federal firefighting resources are in Colorado, where extremely hot and dry conditions have triggered several large wildfires during the last month.
Obama has been in contact with Gov. John Hickenlooper and Mayor Steve Bach of Colorado Springs, where the Waldo Canyon Fire has destroyed an estimated 346 homes, making it the most destructive Colorado blaze ever, 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.
Obama’s planned visit has drawn 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 are coordinating 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 will work 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, said he will accompany Obama aboard Air Force One and during Obama’s tour.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.