No deaths have been reported as a result of a swift and vicious wildfire that consumed at least 500 homes in Boulder County, Colorado, and forced some 35,000 people to flee, authorities said Friday.
“We might have our very own New Year’s miracle on our hands if it holds up that there was no loss of life,” Gov. Jared Polis said. One person who was unaccounted for has been found and several others treated for injuries, authorities said.
The outcome appears all the more astonishing considering how quickly the Marshall Fire spread, carried by historically powerful winds across drought-parched land.
“In the blink of an eye,” the governor said Friday at a news conference, “many families having minutes, minutes to get whatever they could, their pets, their kids into the car and leave.”
Still, hundreds have lost homes and perhaps everything they own. Entire subdivisions burned, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said. “The west side of Superior, Old Town Superior … are totally gone. That accounts easily for 500 homes,” he said after he and the governor flew over the area to assess the damage.
And the tally could rise, Pelle acknowledged. In addition to the devastation in Superior, a town about 10 miles southeast of Boulder, the sheriff said they saw dozens of homes burned in other areas.
“I would estimate it’s going to be at least 500 homes,” Pelle said. “I would not be surprised if it’s a thousand.”
The wildfire began Thursday morning and swallowed at least 1,600 acres in a matter of hours, prompting orders for people across two communities to evacuate. Some 370 homes were destroyed in a single subdivision just west of the town of Superior, while another 210 homes may have been lost in Old Town Superior, the Boulder County sheriff said Thursday.
Superior Mayor Clint Folsom told CNN’s Poppy Harlow the hurricane-force winds were unusual.
“We get these strong winds occasionally, but it’s rare when it really moves soil like this one did, and then you combine it with the fire element and then our extremely dry — extremely dry conditions that we’ve had over the last several months. It was just a recipe for disaster,” he said Friday.
As quickly as the winds began, they subsided overnight and the weather started a quick swing to the other extreme: The fire-ravaged area was under a winter weather warning Friday, with 5 to 10 inches of snow expected to fall by Saturday, CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford said.
Fire officials do not anticipate much more fire growth. Containment remains at 0% because fighting the Marshall Fire is different from battling other blazes, the fire’s incident commander, Michael Smith, told reporters Friday.
“This is about working around the perimeters of homes and working our way through the process,” he said. “We’re having to kind of change our thought process on what containment looks like as far as a percentage, but I do think that our forward progress is going to be very minimal from this point on.”
Downed power lines are suspected as the cause of the Marshall Fire, Pelle said, though authorities continue to investigate.
But, according to a Boulder Office of Emergency Management statement, power company Xcel Energy said it found no downed power lines in the area where the fire started.
About 17,000 customers had no power Friday in Colorado, most of them in Boulder County, after the blaze grew to 6,200 acres overnight, Michelle Kelly with the Boulder Incident Management Team told CNN affiliate KUSA.
“We do still have active burning within the fire perimeter both in the communities of Superior and Louisville,” she said.
‘The winds were going crazy strong’
Thursday’s event was a “truly historic windstorm,” with gusts over 100 mph in Jefferson and Boulder counties fueling the blazes, the National Weather Service said.
Folsom “witnessed houses just exploding right before our eyes” on Thursday evening, he told CNN.
“It was one of the most disturbing situations I have ever been in,” Folsom said Friday.
“One minute, there was nothing. Then, plumes of smoke appeared. Then, flames. Then, the flames jumped around and multiplied,” said Boulder Heights resident Andy Thorn, who’d always worried about wildfires during periods of high wind. He watched the flames and smoke spread Thursday from his home in the foothills.
Wind gusts Thursday pushed the blaze “down a football field in a matter of seconds,” Polis said Thursday.
“There’s no way,” he said, “to quantify in any financial way, the price of a loss — of losing the chair that was handed down to you from your grandmother, of losing your childhood yearbooks, of losing your photos, of losing your computer files — which hundreds of Colorado families have experienced today with no warning.”
Among them is a University of Colorado assistant football coach who said his family lost “every material possession” Thursday in the wildfire.
“Our home, cars, and everything we had in our home lost to the fires that ripped through our community,” Mark Smith tweeted. “Thank you to those who reached out. Processing how to completely start over and grateful for our health.”
Former Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver evacuated animals Thursday afternoon from the home of his brother, who with his family is out of the country, he told CNN on Friday.
“The winds were going crazy strong. We saw two different flame fronts near their house about half a mile away,” said Weaver, who’s also the former fire chief for the community of Sugarloaf.
“We spent a couple hours loading the animals into trailers and trucks and taking them away, pulling out the computer and photo albums as the flames got closer and closer,” he said. “By the time we left, say around 4, the flames were a few hundred yards away — maybe 300, 400 yards away. So, we had to leave.
“We hope the house is OK,” Weaver added, “but have no word yet today.”
‘It was just apocalyptic-feeling’
Evacuation centers were opened, including one for evacuees who have Covid-19, Polis said. In line with a nationwide explosion of cases, Colorado on Thursday recorded its highest ever daily coronavirus case count, with 5,427 cases per day on average statewide over the prior week, according to a CNN analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.
Overall, “We had 300 people overnight in shelters,” Kelly said.
On Thursday at a Costco in Superior, Hunt Frye was shopping for soup for his wife when a worker told customers to evacuate. People initially were calm as they left the store, Frye said, but then took off like “antelope, running all over the place.”
“It was pretty scary. It was kind of like a life beyond a dream,” he said. “It was just apocalyptic-feeling.”
As he drove away through the haze, Frye was “trying to get out of there in a safe manner.”
“But people were running from their houses with their pet cats and, you know, everybody was very panic-stricken,” he said. “The thing that really struck me was the fear in the police officers’ face(s) who were trying to kind of get traffic going. They were legitimately scared.”
A notification Thursday morning from their daughters’ day care in nearby Louisville pinged Chris Smith and his wife, of downtown Superior, to “come pick up the girls,” he told CNN affiliate KCNC. “Please act quickly,” city officials there had urged in their evacuation order.
“I called my wife, and she started collecting valuables and clothes to evacuate,” Smith said. He drove through smoke on his way there and on his way back.
Across the fire zone, roads were blocked by smoke and traffic gridlock as people tried to make their way out.
The situation on the ground was “unbelievable,” Weaver told CNN.
“When you talk about what’s going on on the ground, it was really about trying to stay away from the front of the fire that was being pushed forward and get everything out that we could,” he said. “The focus was on life safety.”
Julie Tanous, an employee at a Home Depot in Louisville, watched from the store as wind and smoke blew through the area.
“It was like a disaster movie,” Tanous told CNN on Friday. She was back at the store cleaning up. Ash is everywhere, she said.
Winds made battle against fire difficult
Strong wind would make battling the fire head on a challenge, Weaver told CNN’s “New Day.”
“The high wind speeds were driving embers and other flames forward so quickly,” he said, adding, “There is no way to attack it head on, that’s absolutely true. Even from the sides, you have to be careful with the swirling winds that are nearby.”
Winds had dropped by early Friday to below 20 mph, and the area is under a winter weather warning, with heavy snowfall expected by sunrise, CNN meteorologist Shackelford said.
Friday’s anticipated snowfall “comes at a good time,” Shackelford said, “since 100% of the state is under some sort of drought, and this snowfall will also help to contain the Marshall Fire.”
Much of the western US has been mired in serious and historic drought, with warmer temperatures and drier conditions consequences of climate change. Denver has seen just over 1 inch of precipitation in the past six months — a record low for the second half of the year. Boulder and its surrounding counties are classified as under an “extreme drought,” per the US Drought Monitor.
The wildfires plaguing Colorado close out a year in which more than 58,000 wildfires burned more than 7.8 million acres across the United States — just above the 10-year average — according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The national wildfire preparedness ranking stood at its highest level for a record 68 consecutive days this summer as the Northern Hemisphere’s summer of wildfires let off record-breaking carbon emissions.
But while snow Friday in Colorado will help halt the wildfire’s advance, “for some people that’s going to be a problem for trying to retrieve belongings from any burned home,” Weaver said.
“If the snow falls too quickly,” he added, “it can do further damage to property.”
Recovery plans are already underway
Boulder’s Office of Emergency Management asked residents to stay out of evacuation zones Friday morning, though some had already begun the recovery process. A search party was scheduled on Facebook for the weekend. On another Facebook page, dozens posted about animals they’re looking for or found in and around the burned areas.
Polis and President Joe Biden spoke Friday, the governor said, and Biden approved an expedited major disaster declaration which would be finalized later in the day.
“What that means is, it allows those who suffered loss — small businesses and homeowners — they won’t have to wait for the preliminary damage assessment for housing and small business assistance,” Polis said. “So that will be forthcoming very soon.
“And the President sends his regards to the people of Colorado and those who are directly impacted.”
At least six people had been treated for injuries related to one of the fires, a UCHealth spokesperson told CNN. A law enforcement officer suffered a minor eye injury from blowing debris.
Polis on Thursday declared a state of emergency, allowing the state to access emergency disaster funds to help the response.