DENVER (AP) – Tens of thousands of Coloradans driven from their neighborhoods by wind-whipped forest fires eagerly awaited to know what was left of their lives on Friday after flames burned down around 580 homes, one hotel and one mall.
At least a first responder and six others were injured in the fires that broke out outside Denver on Thursday morning, unusually late in the year, following an extremely dry fall and in the middle of a winter almost devoid of snow so far.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, who gave the first damage estimate, said there could be more injuries – and also deaths – due to the intensity of the fires, propelled by winds that blew up to 105 mph (169 km / h).
“It’s the kind of fire we can’t fight head-on,” Pelle said. “We actually had deputy sheriffs and firefighters in the areas who had to withdraw because they had just been overrun.”
Mike Guanella and his family were relaxing at their home in the town of Superior and eagerly awaiting a late Christmas celebration later in the day when reports of a nearby grass fire quickly gave way to a 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.
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 was forecast, giving hope that it could prevent the pushes.
The neighboring towns of Louisville and Superior, located about 20 miles northwest of Denver and home to a total of 34,000 people, were ordered to be evacuated before the fires, which cast a smoky orange haze over the countryside.
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.
Residents evacuated fairly calmly and orderly, but the winding streets quickly became blocked. Sometimes it took cars up to 45 minutes to go half a mile.
Small fires erupted here and there in surprising places – on the grass of a median or in a dumpster in the middle of a parking lot – as squalls made the flames leap. The changing winds caused the sky to turn from clear to smoky, then back again as the sirens roared.
Leah Angstman and her husband were returning to their Louisville home from Denver International Airport after being away for the holidays. They said they left a clear blue sky and instantly entered clouds of brown and yellow smoke.
“The wind shook the bus so hard that I thought the bus was going to tip over,” she said.
The visibility was so bad that the bus had to stop. They waited half an hour until a transport company van escorted the bus to a bend on the highway.
“The sky was dark, dark brown, and the earth was swirling across the sidewalk like snakes,” she said.
Vignesh Kasinath, professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado, evacuated from a neighborhood in Superior with his wife and parents.
“It was only because I am active on Twitter that I learned about this,” said Kasinath, who said he had not received an evacuation notice from authorities.
The first fire erupted just before 10:30 am and was “attacked fairly quickly and ignited later that day” with no loss of structure, the sheriff said. A second fire, reported just after 11 a.m., exploded and spread rapidly, Pelle said. It covered at least 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers).
Some of the many fires in the area have been started by broken power lines, authorities said.
Scientists say climate change is making weather more extreme and forest fires more frequent and destructive.
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.
“With snow on the ground, it absolutely wouldn’t have happened as it did,” said snow hydrologist Keith Musselman.
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. “
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