SUPERIOR, Colo. – With no casualties reported Friday in a flash wildfire that devstated two Colorado towns, Gov. Jared Polis called it “a New Year’s miracle” because of how quickly the blaze spread and how little time people had to evacuate.
At least seven people were injured, but remarkably, there were no immediate reports of any deaths or anyone missing in the aftermath of the fire that started Thursday outside Denver.
But Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said more than 500 homes were destroyed. He and Polis said as many as 1,000 homes may have been lost, though the final figure won’t be known until crews can assess the damage.
“It’s unbelievable when you look at the devastation that we don’t have a list of 100 missing persons,” the sheriff said.
Pelle said some communities were reduced to just “smoking holes in the ground.” He urged residents to wait for the all-clear to go back because of the danger of fire and fallen power lines.
The wildfire erupted Thursday in and around Louisville and Superior, neighboring towns about 20 miles northwest of Denver with a combined population of 34,000.
Tens of thousands were ordered to flee as the flames swept over drought-stricken neighborhoods with alarming speed, propelled by wind gusts up to 105 mph.
At a Costco in Superior, two store employees came running toward the checkout lines, one of them shouting, “Everyone evacuate, evacuate, evacuate!” said Katrina Peterson, who was inside.
A video she made showed dark skies and whirling debris outside. The falling ash filled her ears, and she had to squint to keep it from getting in her eyes. The store was left standing.
Officials still have not determined the cause of the fire. Downed power lines were originally suspected of sparking the blaze, but as of Friday afternoon Xcel Energy had inspected all its power lines in the ignition area and found no downed ones, officials said.
With some roads still closed Friday, 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.
Cathy Glaab found that her home in the town of Superior where she lives with her husband 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,” 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 they 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.
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 neighbors, 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 neighborhood 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.”
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, and the blaze, which burned at least 9.4 square miles, was no longer considered an immediate threat.
During a news conference Friday, Polis called the last 24 hours “devastating” and said President Joe Biden had approved a major disaster declaration for the area.
“That means homeowners won’t have to wait for official damage estimates before receiving assistance,” Polis said.
The wildfire broke out unusually late in the year, following an extremely dry fall and amid a winter nearly devoid of snow so far.
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 as everyone tried leaving by way of the winding streets of the well-to-do Rock Creek neighborhood, it took them 1½ hours to go 2 miles. “The good news is I think our house may be OK,” Owens said.
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 Superior and looking forward to celebrating a belated Christmas 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 at a friend’s house in Denver, hoping that the firefighter friend who told them their home was still standing was right.
“Those presents are still under the tree right now – we hope,” he said.
The two neighboring towns are filled with middle- and upper-middle-class subdivisions with shopping centers, 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 percent of Boulder County is in severe or extreme drought, and it hasn’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.
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.