At least 500 homes were likely destroyed and there were no known deaths in a wind-fuelled wildfire outside Denver, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said Friday.
Tens of thousands of Coloradans driven from their neighbourhoods by wind-whipped wildfires anxiously waited to learn what was left standing of their lives.
Pelle described one of the communities lost to the fire as “just smoking holes in the ground.” He said there have been no reports of missing people so far.
“It’s unbelievable when you look at the devastation that we don’t have a list of 100 missing persons.”
The fire burned 24.3 square kilometres, Pelle said. There are still flames but officials are not expecting any growth outside the fire area, he said.
At least one first responder and six other people were injured in the blazes that erupted outside Denver on Thursday morning, unusually late in the year, following an extremely dry fall and amid a winter nearly devoid of snow so far.
“We might have our very own New Year’s miracle on our hands if it holds up that there was no loss of life. We know that many people had just minutes to evacuate and if that was successfully pulled off by all of the affected families — that’s really quite a testimony to preparedness and emergency response,” Gov. Jared Polis said at a news conference Friday.
Pelle, who gave the early damage estimate, said there could be more injuries — and also deaths — because of the ferocity of the fire, propelled by winds up to 169 km/h.
“This is the kind of fire we can’t fight head-on,” Pelle said. “We actually had deputy sheriffs and firefighters in areas that had to pull out because they just got overrun.”
Mike Guanella and his family were relaxing at their home in the city of Superior and looking forward to celebrating a belated Christmas later in the day when reports of a nearby grass fire quickly gave way to an order to leave immediately.
Instead of opening presents, Guanella and his wife, their three children and three dogs were staying a friend’s house in Denver, hoping their house was still standing.
“Those presents are still under the tree right now — we hope,” he said.
As night fell, officials watched the behaviour of the wind and flames to determine when crews could safely go in to assess the damage and search for any victims.
Snow in forecast raises hope
About 2.5 centimetres of snow was forecast for the region Friday, raising hopes it could help suppress the flames.
Sophia Verucchi and her partner, Tony Victor, returned to their apartment in Broomfield, on the edge of Superior, to find that it was spared any serious damage. They had fled the previous afternoon with just Victor’s guitar, bedding and their cat, Senor Gato Blanco.
“We left thinking it was a joke. We just felt like we were going to come back. At 5 o’clock, we thought, maybe we’re not coming back,” Verucchi said. But they got an email in the morning saying it was OK to return.
“Seeing the news and seeing all the houses burnt, we just feel very lucky,” Verucchi said.
The neighbouring cities of Louisville and Superior, about 32 kilometres northwest of Denver and home to a combined 34,000 people, were ordered to evacuate ahead of the flames, which cast a smoky, orange haze over the landscape and lit up the night sky.
The two towns are filled with middle- and upper-middle-class subdivisions with shopping centres, parks and schools. The area is between Denver and Boulder, home to the University of Colorado.
Residents evacuated fairly calmly and in an orderly fashion, but the winding streets quickly became clogged. It sometimes took cars as long as 45 minutes to advance about 0.8 kilometres.
Small fires cropped up here and there in surprising places — on the grass in a median or in a dumpster in the middle of a parking lot — as gusts caused the flames to jump. Shifting winds caused the skies to turn from clear to smoky and then back again as sirens wailed.
The first fire erupted just before 10:30 a.m. and was “attacked pretty quickly and laid down later in the day” with no structures lost, the sheriff said. A second blaze, reported just after 11 a.m., ballooned and spread rapidly, Pelle said. It covered at least 6.5 square kilometres.
Some of the blazes in the area were sparked by downed power lines, authorities said.
County sees extreme droughts
Scientists say climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Colorado’s Front Range, where most of the state’s population lives, had an extremely dry and mild fall, and winter has been mostly dry so far. Denver set a record for consecutive days without snow before it got a small storm on Dec. 10, its last snowfall before the wildfires broke out.
Ninety per cent of Boulder County is in severe or extreme drought, and it hasn’t seen substantial rainfall since mid-summer.
“With any snow on the ground, this absolutely would not have happened in the way that it did,” said snow hydrologist Keith Musselman.
Guanella said he heard from a firefighter friend that his home was still standing Thursday night. But he could only wait and see.
“You’re just waiting to hear if your favourite restaurant is still standing, if the schools that your kids go to are still standing,” he said. “You’re just waiting to get some clarity.”