Snow forecast could fight flames after evacuations

December 31, 2021
A line of homes in Superior, Colorado, were destroyed while others remained untouched by the fast-moving wildfire that blitzed through the area on Thursday.
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BOULDER, Colo. – As snow fell Friday, Coloradans in the Boulder suburbs began to asses the damage from a fast-moving wildfire driven by gusty winds that blitzed the area.

Tens of thousands of people were forced to evacuate and hundreds of homes were destroyed as the fire spread within minutes, authorities said.

“Just in the blink of an eye. This was a disaster in fast motion, all over the course of half a day,” Gov. Jared Polis said at a Friday morning news conference.

No fatalities have been reported and the only one person reported missing overnight was located safely, Sheriff Joe Pelle said. If that number holds, it would be a “New Year’s miracle,” Polis said.

“It’s unbelievable when you look at the devastation that we don’t have a list of a hundred missing persons, but we don’t,” Pelle said.

With wind gusts over 100 mph in Boulder County and drier than usual conditions, the blazes scorched the area around Superior and Louisville, which were still under evacuation orders. A boil water order was also in effect after the water system lost pressure, Pelle said.

‘ABSOLUTELY DEVASTATING’:Wind-driven Colorado wildfires burn hundreds of homes near Boulder

As many as a thousand homes could have been burned, although exact numbers were not immediately known, Pelle said. He said at least 500 homes were lost.

The fire moved in “mosaics,” the sheriff added. In some places, the fires leveled homes on one block and left others nearby untouched. Families had minutes to evacuate, Polis said.

“It was intense in places and then in other places it just got in topography, driven by the wind and it ran in fingers,” Pelle added.

Polis said he spoke with President Joe Biden on Friday, who planned to sign a federal disaster declaration. Even though some hots spots were still smoldering, Polis said he did not expect additional major damage Friday with snow falling.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but Pelle said it is believed downed power lines may have sparked the flames.

At least one first responder and six people were injured. A hospital reported treating several burn victims. No fatalities or reports of missing people have been reported yet.

Friday morning, longtime Superior resident Karen Russell, 67, peered through binoculars at the neighborhood below the ridge she stood on, trying to determine whether her house survived.

“I just don’t know. I’m feeling hopeful and prepared for the worst,” she said.

Russell and her family have lived in the Rock Creek neighborhood for 21 years, watching the town transform from an old coal-mining village outside Boulder into a bedroom community with its own shops and schools.

Russell said that even if her home was destroyed, she’ll be OK. But what about the others, she asked?

“I’m much more worried about the families and the children,” she said.

Chris Ochs, 50, and Rachel Pennycuick, 48, loaded backpacks and prepared to walk several miles into their neighborhood, which is still evacuated.

Pennycuick evacuated Thursday afternoon when sheriff’s deputies went door-to-door warning Superior residents. Ochs was on a road trip to Utah with their dog, Dude, and he rushed back to Colorado “somewhat faster than the posted speed limit.”

Looking at pictures of the area on Friday morning, Ochs said he’s confident their home survived. Still, he thought it important to check.

“You have to see it. You have to put your mind at ease,” Ochs said.

Around 6,000 acres were in the fire zone, Pelle said Friday. While some flames were still burning inside the containment area, officials didn’t expect any growth given the snow.

Polis and other officials on Friday morning flew over the burn area in a pair of helicopters, assessing the damage.

About 4 to 8 inches of snow was expected between Denver and Boulder through Saturday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.

HOW TO HELP:Here’s how you can help people impacted by the Colorado fires

Zach Hiris, a meteorologist in the Denver and Boulder Forecast Office, said most of the snow is expected to come overnight into Saturday morning, but about an inch may fall Friday.

“It’ll certainly help kind of eliminate some of the (fire) hot spots that are out there,” he said.

Hiris called the change from fire conditions to winter storm “a 180” that even by Colorado standards was extreme. “We’re kind of flipping the switch very quickly here,” he said.

The Denver area was experiencing the driest second half of the year it had on record, the Weather Service said in a tweet. From February to June, precipitation was above normal levels, “but since then, precipitation has flat-lined,” the Weather Service said.

Adding to the fire-friendly conditions were triple-digit wind gusts. In Boulder County, winds reached up to 108 mph, and in nearby Jefferson County, they hit 115 mph. 

Hiris said the perfect conditions for a mountain wave created the gusty winds Thursday, which combined with the unusually dry conditions helped spark the fires and allowed them to spread so quickly.

Contributing: Doyle Rice, Jeanine Santucci and Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; The Associated Press



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