LOUISVILLE, Colo. (AP) — Offering hugs and humor, President Joe Biden comforted Coloradans grappling with rebuilding homes and businesses that were destroyed last week by a rare wind-whipped, winter fire that burned through a pair of heavily populated suburbs between Denver and Boulder.
One victim was identified Friday and one person remained unaccounted for out of some 35,000 forced from their homes.
Biden, and his wife, Jill, arrived in the Harper Lake neighborhood of Louisville on Friday afternoon to survey the damage, passing the burned remnants of homes next to damaged structures still standing. They walked along a street where homes burned to their concrete foundations, meeting residents and local officials who have been overseeing the response and recovery operation. The president was also set to deliver remarks.
Before departing the White House, Biden described the destruction as “god-awful.”
The fire broke out unusually late in December following months of drought with a dry fall and a winter with hardly any snow. Nearly 1,100 buildings, most of them homes, were destroyed, causing an estimated $513 million in damages.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Investigators have narrowed their search for the cause to an area near Boulder where a passer-by captured video of a burning shed on Dec. 30, when the fire began. But it could still take authorities weeks to figure out how it started.
Most of the buildings destroyed were homes. But the blaze also burned through eight businesses in Louisville and neighboring Superior. Federal, state and local agencies and nonprofits have been offering housing assistance, counseling, food, stipends and other aid to residents.
Traveling with the president on Air Force One to Colorado were the state’s two senators, two members of Congress from the affected area, and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, whose agency is providing federal assistance. In Colorado, he met Gov. Jared Polis, Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle and Louisville Fire Protection District Chief John Wilson, in addition to residents and first responders.
Greeting a line of firefighters and EMS personnel one by one, Biden passed out challenge coins bearing the presidential seal as he thanked them for their service with a handshake.
Stacy Moore stood in her backyard Friday afternoon surveying the fire’s destruction of the home she'd lived in since the 1990s. She had been drawn to the area because it was supposed to be free of threats of wildfires, floods or tornadoes that other parts of the state typically see.
“I thought it was perfectly safe,” she said.
“I’d like to see the federal government and our city governments and our state governments help educate people on how we can use best building practices," she said. She's been told home insurance will "come nowhere close” to covering the cost of rebuilding.
On Friday, authorities identified a person whose remains were found near the origin of the fire earlier this week as Robert Sharpe, 69, of Boulder. In a statement, his family said Sharpe was a long-time resident who worked in the construction industry for many years.
“The total devastation of this event has shocked and impacted so many in the community," the family said in a statement thanking authorities for the intensive search for Sharpe. “Our hearts go out to the many others who have suffered losses.”
Last year, Biden made several trips to survey the aftermath of weather events, including ice storms in Houston, wildfires in California and flooding in New York City and New Jersey.
In mid-December, he visited residents of Dawson Springs, Kentucky, after a series of tornadoes tore through that state and seven others, killing scores of people.
After surveying the scene in Colorado, Biden and the first lady were to travel to Las Vegas to attend Saturday's funeral for Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader.
Reid died last week after a years-long battle with cancer at age 82. He and Biden had served together in the Senate.
Associated Press writer Patty Nieberg in Louisville, Colorado, contributed.
Darlene Superville, The Associated Press