Colorado wildfires force tens of thousands to evacuate homes over holidays
'So many memories,' says one resident who lost her home and plans to rebuild
One couple returned home Friday to find the mailbox about the only thing left standing. Charred cars and a burned trampoline lay outside smoldering houses. On some blocks, homes reduced to smoking ruins stood next to ones all but unscathed by the flames.
Colorado residents driven from their neighbourhoods by a terrifying, wind-whipped wildfire got their first, heartbreaking look at the damage the morning after, while others could only wait and wonder whether their homes were among the more than 500 feared destroyed.
At least seven people were injured, but remarkably there were no immediate reports of any deaths or anyone missing in the aftermath of the blaze that erupted Thursday in and around Louisville and Superior, neighbouring towns about 32 kilometres northwest of Denver with a combined population of 34,000.
Cathy Glaab found 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 burned to the ground.
"The mailbox is standing," she said, sadly, trying to crack a smile through tears. "So many memories."
Despite the devastation, Glaab said she and her husband intend to rebuild the house they 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.
Tens of thousands evacuated
Tens of thousands were ordered to flee as the flames, propelled by gusts of up to 169 km/h, swept over drought-stricken neighbourhoods with alarming speed.
The cause of the blaze was under investigation. Emergency authorities said utility officials found no downed power lines around where the fire broke out.
The day after, David Marks stood on a hillside overlooking Superior with others, using a borrowed pair of binoculars and a long camera lens to see if his house, and those belonging to his neighbours, were still there.
He said he thinks his home is OK, but he won't know for sure until police let residents back in. Marks said at least three friends lost their homes.
He had watched from the hillside as the neighbourhood burned.
"By the time I got up here, the houses were completely engulfed," he said. "I mean, it happened so quickly. I've never seen anything like that. Just house after house, fences, just stuff flying through the air, just caught on fire."
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By first light Friday, the towering flames that had lit up the night sky had subsided and the winds had died down. Light snow soon began to fall, raising hopes it could snuff out hot spots.
"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," said Gov. Jared Polis at a news conference Friday.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe 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."
Residents await news of their homes
Sarah Owens, her husband, adult son and their dog got out of their Superior home within 10 minutes of learning about the evacuation from a Facebook post. But because everyone left by way of the winding streets of the affluent Rock Creek neighbourhood, it took them about an hour and a half to travel a little more than three kilometres.
Once they safely found their way to a pet-friendly hotel, their cell phones and computers could not provide them with the only thing they wanted to know: Was their house still standing?
"The good news is I think our house may be OK," Owens said.
I never thought a brush fire could cause this kind of destruction.- Sarah Owens, resident of Superior
But from now on, she said, she plans to have a bag packed in case of another fire.
"I never thought a brush fire could cause this kind of destruction," Owens said. "I want to stay here. No matter where you live, there are always going to be natural disasters."
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.
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.
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.
Typically, Colorado wildfires have not been as headline-grabbing as those in California that have destroyed thousands of homes. But last year, the state saw an unprecedented wildfire season, with three of the largest fires in state history. Those were primarily in mountainous areas, not in suburban subdivisions.
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.