Colorado authorities were searching Saturday for two people reported missing from a wind-whipped winter-season wildfire in Denver’s suburbs that destroyed hundreds of homes and left thousands of people trying to salvage belongings.
Authorities had said earlier no one was missing in the area hit by Thursday’s blaze, but Boulder County spokesperson Jennifer Churchill said Saturday they were now trying to find two people who were later reported as unaccounted for after sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and other officials located hundreds of people who initially were reported missing.
Churchill declined to provide details on the two, where they were last seen or efforts to find them, and attributed the error to confusion inherent when agencies are scrambling to manage an emergency.
The news came as an overnight dumping of snow and frigid temperatures on Saturday compounded the misery of hundreds of Colorado residents who started off the new year trying to salvage what remains of their homes.
At least 15 centimetres of snow and temperatures in the single digits cast an eerie scene amid the still-smouldering remains of homes destroyed in Thursday’s wildfire, which raced through the suburban area that lies between Denver and Boulder. Despite the shocking change in weather, the smell of smoke still permeated empty streets blocked off by National Guard troops in Humvees.
For the thousands of residents whose homes survived the conflagration, Red Cross shelter volunteers distributed electric space heaters as utility crews struggled to restore natural gas and electricity.
At least seven people were injured in the wildfire that erupted in and around Louisville and Superior, neighbouring towns about 30 kilometres northwest of Denver with a combined population of 34,000. More than 500 homes were feared destroyed.
Some residents return to ruins
The blaze, which burned at least 24 square kilometres, was no longer considered an immediate threat.
Families forced to flee the flames with little warning began returning to their neighbourhoods on Friday to find a patchwork of devastation. On some blocks, homes reduced to smoking ruins stood next to those practically unscathed by the blaze.
“For 35 years I walked out my front door, I saw beautiful homes,” Eric House said. “Now when I walk out, my home’s standing. I walk out my front door and this is what I see.”
Cathy Glaab found that her home in Superior had been turned into a pile of charred and twisted debris. It was one of seven houses in a row that were destroyed.
“The mailbox is standing,” Glaab said, trying to crack a smile through tears. She added sadly, “So many memories.”
Despite the devastation, she said they intend to rebuild the house she and her husband have had since 1998. They love that the land backs up to a natural space, and they have a view of the mountains from the back.
Rick Dixon feared there would be nothing to return to after he saw firefighters trying to save his burning home on the news. On Friday, Dixon, his wife and son found it mostly gutted, with a gaping hole in the roof but still standing.
“We thought we lost everything,” he said, as he held his mother-in-law’s china in padded containers. They also retrieved sculptures that belonged to Dixon’s father and piles of clothes still on hangers.
Cause of blaze under investigation
As the flames swept over drought-stricken neighbourhoods with alarming speed, propelled by wind guests up to 169 km/h, tens of thousands were ordered to flee.
The cause of the blaze was under investigation. Emergency authorities said utility officials found no downed power lines around where the fire broke out.
With some roads still closed, people walked back to their homes to get clothes or medicine, turn the water off to prevent the pipes from freezing or see if they still had a house. They left carrying backpacks and pulling suitcases or wagons down the sidewalk.
David Marks stood on a hillside overlooking Superior with others, using a pair of binoculars and a long-range camera lens to see if his house and those of his neighbours were still there, but he couldn’t tell for sure whether his place was OK. He said at least three friends lost their homes.
He had watched from the hillside as the neighbourhood burned.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Marks said. “Just house after house, fences, just stuff flying through the air, just caught on fire.”
U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday declared a major disaster in the area, ordering federal aid be made available to those affected.
Region hit by drought
The wildfire broke out unusually late in the year, following an extremely dry fall and amid a winter nearly devoid of snow until the overnight snowfall.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said more than 500 homes were probably destroyed. He and Gov. Jared Polis said as many as 1,000 homes might have been lost, though that won’t be known until crews can assess the damage.
Superior and Louisville 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.
Scientists say climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Ninety per cent of Boulder County is in severe or extreme drought, and it hadn’t seen substantial rainfall since mid-summer. 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.
Bruce Janda faced the loss of his Louisville home of 25 years in person on Friday.
“We knew that the house was totalled, but I felt the need to see it, see what the rest of the neighborhood looked like,” he said. “We all know each other and we all love each other. It’s hard to see this happen to all of us.”