COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — President Barack Obama absorbed the devastation of Colorado's wildfires Friday, visiting a neighborhood struck by the flames and taking in the acrid smells of charred homes while plumes of smoke rose from the surrounding mountains.

After declaring a "major disaster" in the state early Friday and promising federal aid, Obama got a firsthand view of the fires and their toll on residential communities. More than 30,000 people have been evacuated in what is now the most destructive wildfire in state history.

"Whether it's fires in Colorado or flooding in the northern parts of Florida, when natural disasters like this hit, America comes together," Obama said after touring a neighborhood where the fire left some homes standing but leveled surrounding properties. "We all recognize that there but for the grace of God go I. We've got to make sure that we have each others' backs."

Obama's appearance in Colorado took on added significance coming less than five months before the Nov. 6 presidential election. The state is a crucial bellwether in the contest between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, and the president's visit illustrated the enormous power of incumbency he enjoys to deliver not only assistance but to show compassion and command.

Stopping to greet firefighters and other first responders, Obama said: "The country is grateful for your work. The country's got your back." He later stopped at a YMCA shelter, where he was greeted with cheers and told volunteers "you guys are making us proud."

Obama spent a swift three hours in Colorado Springs, meeting only a handful of evacuees from fire-affected or threatened neighborhoods. The trip offered images of the president inspecting charred remains of a neighborhood but presented few opportunities for emotion-packed moments. Most of his time was spent with firefighters, or walking with state and local officials through evacuated neighborhoods.

The president first saw the fires and the smoky mountains as Air Force One approached Colorado Springs. His motorcade then weaved slowly through the neighborhood of Mountain Shadows, passing the wreckage of dozens of burned down homes and charred cars, including a melted Ford Taurus and a Toyota RAV-4.

He had special words for a group of firefighters who had just recently managed to save some houses in a subdivision attacked by the flames.

"They're genuine heroes," he said. He was accompanied by Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and members of the state's congressional delegation.

Obama also praised the cooperation between all levels of government.

A Wendy's restaurant across the street from a command post Obama visited had a sign that read: "We will get through this together."

Hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the blaze that has encroached on the state's second-largest city and threatened the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The White House said Obama made the trip to get a firsthand look at the wildfire damage and to assess whether additional federal resources are necessary.

But election-year political concerns also created an imperative for Obama to be on the ground. The presidential contest in Colorado is close, and Obama and Romney are looking to swing the state in their favor anyway they can.

About 46 percent of registered voters backed Obama, 42 percent backed Romney and 8 percent were undecided in an NBC News/Marist poll conducted in late May.

Colorado, with huge swaths of independent-minded voters, holds significant political weight in November. In a tight election, the state's nine electoral votes could make the difference between a win or a loss. Obama won Colorado in 2008.

Obama's campaign and a political action committee supporting him have spent more than $8 million on television advertisements in the state, according to Republican officials who track ad buys. Romney and outside groups backing his candidacy have spent more than $4 million.

Besides viewing the fire damage, Obama also has walked tornado-stricken streets in Missouri and Alabama, and met with flood victims in Tennessee – all states that voted against him in the 2008 presidential election.

Every decision the Obama White House makes to send him to a disaster zone is done under the shadow of Bush's botched response to Hurricane Katrina, which irrevocably damaged his presidency.

Bush was widely criticized as detached and uncaring when he viewed the flooding of New Orleans from the air rather than meeting with people on the ground. White House officials said at the time that they didn't want Bush's presence to distract from the recovery efforts.

Obama faced criticism that Friday's trip could divert time and resources away from the firefighting effort, assertions that were rejected by White House press secretary Jay Carney.

"We are not in any way pulling resources away," he told reporters traveling with the president. "We make sure that we don't."

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Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont and AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • A helicopters flies over as the Waldo Canyon Fire continues to burn Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • A helicopter flies over as the Waldo Canyon Fire continues to burn Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents.(AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • A slurry bomber drops fire retardant on the Waldo Canyon Fire Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • The sun sets on the front range where the Waldo Canyon Fire continues to burn Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • Pikes Peak is shrouded in orange smoke as the Waldo Canyon Fire continues to burn Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • This aerial photo taken on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, shows burned homes in the Mountain Shadows residential area of Colorado Springs, Colo., that were destroyed by the Waldo Canyon wildfire. More than 30,000 have been displaced by the fire, including thousands who frantically packed up belongings Tuesday night after it barreled into neighborhoods in the foothills west and north of Colorado's second-largest city. (AP Photo/John Wark)

  • A helicopter flies past the charred mountainside above Queens Canyon as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Jerilee Bennett)

  • A plume of smoke rises from Ute Pass in the direction of Woodland Park as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Jerilee Bennett)

  • A helicopter heads out for a drop to battle the Waldo Canyon Fire north and west of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

  • After being grounded for hours by high winds, a helicopter takes off to battle the Waldo Canyon Fire north and west of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

  • A helicopter drops water as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

  • Helicopters fly over as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

  • A helicopter drops water as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

  • Small fires smolder in the Mountain Shadows area as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

  • Some homes are left scorched by The Waldo Canyon Fire, while others survived, in the Mountain Shadows area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Wednesday, June 27, 2012. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    Fire from the Waldo Canyon wildfire as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • Parkside neighborhood in Mt. Shadows. Image via <a href="https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=4167559318285&set=a.1042850282512.8779.1563250549&type=1&theater" target="_hplink">Facebook</a>.

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A plume of smoke rises behind homes on the Waldo Canyon wildfire west of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. A large number of homes were destroyed by the fire Tuesday night in subdivisions west of Colorado Springs. Authorities say it remains too dangerous for them to fully assess the damage from a destructive wildfire threatening Colorado's second-largest city. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Homes are destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows area of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. A stubborn and towering wildfire jumped firefighters' perimeter lines in the hills overlooking Colorado Springs, forcing frantic mandatory evacuation notices for more than 9,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette,Jerilee Bennett)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

  • Western Wild Fires

    Flames and smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire surround a home as it races down into western portions of Colorado Springs, Colo. on Tuesday, June 26, 2012 leaving a trail of destruction and burning homes and buildings in it's path. Heavily populated areas in the fire's path have been affected. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • CO Wildfire 2012

    Veiw from Garden of Gods Road

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    Fire from the Waldo Canyon wildfire as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • Western Wild Fires

    Flames of the Waldo Canyon Fire races down into western portions of Colorado Springs, Colo. on Tuesday, June 26, 201. The flames approach a residential neighborhood heading north and leaving a trail of destruction, burning homes and buildings in it's path. Heavily populated areas in the fire's path have been affected. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • Western Wild Fires

    Flames from the Waldo Canyon Fire move quickly move through the western side Colorado Springs, Colo. causing several structures and homes to burn on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. The fire made a massive run late in the day leaving a trail of destruction, and burning homes and buildings in it's path. Heavily populated areas in the fire's path have been affected. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • The Waldo Canyon Fire begins to burn homes north of Garden of the Gods Road in northwest Colorado Springs, Colo., on the fourth day of the blaze Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

  • Houses in the Mountain Shadows area of Colorado Springs, Colorado ignite due to the Waldo Canyon fire on Wednesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Jerilee Bennett)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A helicopter tries to put out fire on the Waldo Canyon wildfire as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A plume of smoke is seen over Interstate 25 as the Waldo Canyon wildfire moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A helicopter tries to put out fire on the Waldo Canyon wildfire as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    Fire from the Waldo Canyon wildfire as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    Fire from the Waldo Canyon wildfire burns as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • A plane flies through a rising plume of smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo. on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado as of Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • A helicopter battles the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado as of Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire, Rich Brown

    Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown, right, speaks at a briefing on the Waldo Canyon wildfire in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Authorities say it remains too dangerous for them to fully assess the damage from a destructive wildfire threatening Colorado's second-largest city. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Mitch Rowley, a firefighter with the the Colorado Springs Fire Department Task Force I unit, keeps an eye on the Waldo Canyon Fire from a northwestern neighborhood in Colorado Springs, Colo. on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado as of Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • People watch from Mesa Road as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado as of Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • A helicopter and another aircraft battle the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado as of Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • A helicopter battles the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado as of Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A firefighting helicopter flies over burned trees as it goes to refill its bucket while fighting the Waldo Canyon wildfire west of Manitou Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    The Waldo Canyon wildfire blazes through tree tops west of Manitou Springs, Colo., Monday, June 25, 2012. The Waldo Canyon fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado on Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday, June 23, but no homes have been destroyed. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A plume of smoke rises above the Waldo Canyon wildfire west of Manitou Springs, Colo., on Monday afternoon, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least eight wildfires in Colorado on Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday, June 23, but no homes have been destroyed. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A plume of smoke rises above the Waldo Canyon fire west of Manitou Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado on Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday, June 23, but no homes have been destroyed. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)