Hundreds of homes burn in Colorado wildfires

Mike Guanella and his family were relaxing at their Colorado home and were eager to celebrate a belated family Christmas later Thursday when reports of a nearby lawn fire quickly turned into a worrisome pre-evacuation warning and then within minutes. in an order to leave immediately.

The Guanellas were among the tens of thousands of residents who were forced to evacuate their homes outside Denver when wildfires fueled by winds that blew up to 105 mph (169 kph) engulfed parts of two cities and burned approximately 580 homes. , a hotel and a shopping center. center.

Instead of opening Christmas presents at their home in Superior City as planned, Guanella and his wife, their three children, and their three dogs stayed at a friend’s home in Denver and hoped their home would still be there. standing.

“Those gifts are still under the tree right now. . . we wait, ”Guanella said.

At least one lifeguard and six others were injured in the fires that started Thursday morning, unusually at the end of the year and following an extremely dry fall and a winter so far with almost no snow. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle acknowledged that more injuries and deaths are possible due to the intensity of the fires that were rapidly spreading through the region.

“This is the kind of fire that we can’t fight head-on,” Pelle said. “In fact, we had sheriffs and firefighters in areas that had to withdraw because they were invaded,” he added.

As night fell, officials observed how the winds and fires behaved to determine when crews can enter and begin to assess the damage and search for victims.

Evacuations were ordered earlier in the day for the cities of Louisville and Superior, located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Denver and home to a total of 34,000 people. A nearby portion of US Highway 36 was also closed.

The neighboring towns are full of middle and upper-middle class subdivisions surrounded by shopping malls, parks, and schools. The area sits between Denver and Boulder, a college town in the foothills that is home to the University of Colorado.

Residents evacuated fairly calmly and orderly, but the winding streets in the subdivisions quickly became jammed as people tried to get out. Sometimes it took cars up to 45 minutes to go about half a mile (less than one kilometer).

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Small fires erupted here and there in surprising places, on a median lawn or in a dumpster in the middle of a parking lot, when gusts of wind caused the fire to jump and spread. The changing winds caused the skies to change from clear to smoky and then returned as emergency sirens sounded nearby.

Video captured by a passerby outside a Superior Costco store showed an apocalyptic scene with winds whipping barren trees in the parking lot surrounded by gray skies, hazy sunshine and small fires strewn across the ground.

Leah Angstman and her husband saw similar skies as they returned to their Louisville home from Denver International Airport after being away on vacation. As they sat on the bus heading toward Boulder, Angstman recalled instantly leaving a clear blue sky and stepping into clouds of brown and yellow smoke.

“The wind shook the bus so hard I thought it would tip,” he said.

Visibility was so poor that the bus had to stop and they waited half an hour until a van from the regional transit authority escorted them to a detour in the road.

“The sky was dark, dark brown, and the ground swirled down the sidewalk like snakes,” he said.

Vignesh Kasinath, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado, was evacuated from a neighborhood in Superior with his wife and parents. Kasinath said the family was overwhelmed by the sudden evacuation warning and anxious for the chaos as they tried to leave.

“It is only because I am active on Twitter that I found out about this,” said Kasinath, who said he did not receive an official evacuation notice from authorities.

Pelle said the first fire broke out just before 10:30 am and was “attacked quite quickly and deposited later in the day and is currently being monitored” with no structures being lost.

A second wildfire, reported shortly after 11 am, “broke out and spread rapidly eastward,” Pelle said. The fire spans 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers).

Some of the several fires in the area Thursday were caused by downed power lines.

The fires prompted Governor Jared Polis to declare a state of emergency, allowing the state to access emergency disaster funds.

Colorado’s Front Range, where most of the state’s population lives, had an extremely dry and mild fall, and the winter thus far has remained mostly dry. Denver set a record for the most consecutive days without snow before it got a small storm on December 10th. It has not snowed since then, although snow was expected in the region on Friday.

Scientists say climate change is causing more extreme weather and more frequent and destructive forest fires. TO historic drought and heat waves have made wildfires more difficult to fight in the western United States.

Ninety percent of Boulder County is in severe or extreme drought and has not seen substantial rainfall since mid-summer.

“With the snow on the ground, this would not have happened at all the way it did,” said snow hydrologist Keith Musselman, who was at his home when the fires erupted not far away Thursday.

Musselman said this severe fire hazard is expected in September and October after a dry summer, but the lack of precipitation so late in the season is highly unusual.

The National Weather Service predicts that up to a foot of snow could fall in Boulder tomorrow, and that the humidity will bring substantial relief, Musselman said.

Guanella said he heard from a firefighter friend that his family’s home was still standing Thursday night. And now he can only wait to see if that holds up.

“He’s just waiting to find out if his favorite restaurant is still standing, if the schools his children go to are still standing,” Guanella said. “You’re just hoping to have some clarity, hopefully tomorrow.”

Associated Press reporter Brittany Peterson contributed to this report. McCombs reported from Salt Lake City. Nieberg is a member of the staff of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on little-covered topics.

The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policies. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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