(CNN) -- Calmer winds and lower temperatures Thursday could help firefighters battle a blaze that has devoured more than 18,000 acres and chased 36,000 people from their homes in Colorado Springs.
But the Waldo Canyon Fire is only 5% contained, and it could be mid-July before it is fully under control, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Still, Thursday brought some respite to crews that have been stymied by erratic winds fueling the flames.
Incident commander Rich Harvey said he expected a much larger percentage of the fire contained by the end of Thursday.
"We have the first break in the weather since we've been out here," he said. "We are learning as we fight this fire some of its tricks. And one of its tricks is to run down these hills that way. You can fool us once, maybe, but not twice."
Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach said officials were still assessing property losses, but "hundreds of homes have been destroyed." Aerial photos showed at least 300 charred homes in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs, The Denver Post reported.
The Waldo Canyon Fire captured attention because of its proximity to landmarks like Pikes Peak and the U.S. Air Force Academy, and also to Colorado Springs, a city of about 400,000, the state's second largest.
The Flying W Ranch, a Western-style tourist attraction in Colorado Springs, burned to the ground.
President Barack Obama will travel to the area Friday to survey the damage and thank responders battling the blaze, the White House said.
The Denver office of the FBI, meanwhile, has joined local authorities in investigating reports that an arsonist may have set the fire.
"It infuriates me and it just makes my blood boil," Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said at the thought of arson. "It creates a physical reaction in me ... to think that there's someone out there, because they get some kick ... there's some joy that they get (from setting a fire)."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta received a briefing Thursday from NORTHCOM commander Gen. Chuck Jacoby "on the status of Defense Department support" to the wildfires, Panetta's office said, and instructed Jacoby to continue to provide assets to the extent they are needed.
Currently, four C-130 aircraft are providing assistance to firefighters and have dropped more than 100,000 gallons of retardant, Panetta's office said. The U.S. Army has provided bulldozers and other equipment, and 22 fire trucks from military bases were also on the scene. Military personnel were providing housing, meals and medical care at temporary shelters.
The forecast in the coming days will be somewhat kinder to firefighters.
Temperatures are expected to cool into the lower 90s with winds of no more than 10 mph -- a far cry from the 65-mph gusts Tuesday that whipped the flames through mountain canyons and past containment lines.
The scale of the fire is such that smoke blankets the sky 40 miles to the north, Castle Rock resident Heather Gardner said.
"It's just really devastating to see that landscape completely charred and people's homes lost," she said. "I pray for that community and the rescue workers involved in keeping everyone safe."
The inferno has been a challenge even for some of the country's top firefighters -- sometimes getting the best of them.
"We have rehearsed and practiced disasters," said Dave Rose, public information officer for El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs. "We have never seen one like this before."
Some rain did fall Wednesday on a separate fire burning near Boulder, according to the National Weather Service, but the extended forecast calls for no more than a slight chance of precipitation.
The bone-dry conditions may make the Fourth of July holiday less festive for many Coloradans. Fireworks displays in Jefferson and Douglas counties -- to the south and west of Denver -- have been canceled.
With tens of thousands of state residents out of their homes, the Denver Broncos pledged $50,000 to relief efforts for the wildfires.
"This is our home, and we need to do whatever we can to take care of our neighbors," team owner Pat Bowlen said. "If at all possible, I encourage our fans to help however they can in providing relief during this time of need."
Richard Brown, the Colorado Springs fire chief, called the Waldo Canyon Fire a "firestorm of epic proportions."
Stan and Darlene Colbert were among the last families in the evacuation zone to pull out. They waited, hoping the fire would subside, but after watching the flames from their back porch, they knew it was time to go.
The first things the couple -- married 43 years -- packed were the family photos.
"Every one of them I could find; every photo, because I can't replace those," Darlene Colbert said.
The flames came dangerously close to the Air Force Academy's main campus, and an evacuation order was issued for about 700 residents in its Pine Valley Housing and 1,400 in Douglass Valley Housing, public affairs officer John Van Winkle said.
The facility was