Tens of thousands of Coloradans driven from their neighborhoods by a windswept wildfire were anxiously awaiting what was left of their lives on Friday as authorities reported more than 500 homes feared destruction.
At least seven people were injured, but there were no immediate reports of deaths or disappearances from the fire that broke out outside Denver on Thursday and swept through drought-stricken neighborhoods in terrifying speed, propelled by gusts of up to 105 mph (169 km / h).
“We could have our own New Years miracle on our hands if it confirms that there has been no loss of life,” Gov. Jared Polis said, noting that many people only had a few minutes to clear out.
By early morning light on Friday, the huge flames that had lit the night sky were gone, leaving smoking houses and charred trees and fields. The winds had calmed down and light snow quickly began to fall, giving hope that it could choke the hot spots.
The fire broke out around Louisville and Superior, neighboring towns about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Denver with a combined population of 34,000. Residents were ordered to flee as the flames approached, casting a smoky and orange haze across the landscape.
The flames started exceptionally late in the year, following an extremely dry fall and the middle of a nearly snow-free winter so far.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said more than 500 homes were likely destroyed. He and the governor said as many as 1,000 homes could have been lost, although this is not known until crews can assess the damage.
“It’s amazing when you look at the devastation that we don’t have a list of 100 missing people,” the sheriff said.
The sheriff said some communities were reduced to “smoking holes in the ground.” He urged residents to wait until everything is clear to return, warning that it was still too dangerous in many neighborhoods due to fires and falling power lines.
Sarah Owens, her husband, adult son and their dog were released from their Superior home within 10 minutes of the evacuation being announced from a Facebook post. But as everyone tried to make their way through the winding streets of affluent Rock Creek, it took them an hour and a half to travel two miles.
Once they found their way to a safe, pet-friendly hotel, their cellphones and computers couldn’t provide them with the one thing they wanted to know – was their house still standing?
“The good news is I think our house can be okay,” Owens said.
But from now on, she said, she plans to have a bag prepared in case of another fire.
“I never thought that a bushfire could cause this kind of destruction,” Owens said. “I want to stay here. No matter where you live, there will always be natural disasters.”
Mike Guanella and his family were relaxing at their Superior home and eagerly awaiting a late Christmas celebration 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 their house was still standing.
“These gifts are still under the tree right now – we hope so,” he said.
Sophia Verucchi and her companion, Tony Victor, returned to their apartment in Broomfield, on the edge of Superior, to find that he had not suffered any serious damage. They’d gotten away 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 5pm we thought we might not be back, ”said Verucchi. But they got an email in the morning saying it was OK to come back.
“Seeing the news and seeing all the houses burned down, we feel very lucky,” Verucchi said.
Both towns are full of bourgeois and bourgeois housing estates with shopping centers, parks and schools. The area lies between Denver and Boulder, home to the University of Colorado.
By late Friday morning, the blaze had burned at least 24 square kilometers but appeared to be contained, the sheriff said.
Scientists say climate change is making weather more extreme and forest fires more frequent and destructive.
Typically, the Colorado wildfires did not make the headlines as much as those in California which destroyed thousands of homes. But last year, the state experienced an unprecedented wildfire season, with three of the largest fires in state history. These were mainly found in mountainous areas, and not in suburban housing estates.
In anticipation of a long fire season this year, Colorado lawmakers have set aside millions for more equipment and other resources, including contract extensions for tankers and helicopters.
Colorado’s Front Range, where most of the state’s population lives, has experienced an extremely dry and mild fall, and the winter has been mostly dry so far. Denver set a record for consecutive days without snow before there was a small storm on December 10, its last snowfall before wildfires broke out.
Ninety percent of Boulder County experiences severe or extreme drought, and it has not experienced significant rainfall since mid-summer.
Guanella said she heard from a firefighter friend that her house was still standing Thursday night. But he could only wait and see.
“You’re just waiting to find out if your favorite restaurant is still standing, if the schools your kids go to are still standing,” he said. “You’re just waiting for some clarification. “
Brittany Peterson, Patty Nieberg and Colleen Slevin, The Associated Press