Thousands flee as Colorado wildfires burn hundreds of homes

DENVER – Mike Guanella and his family were relaxing in their Colorado home and looking forward to celebrating a belated Christmas later Thursday when reports of a nearby lawn fire quickly turned to pre-evacuation notice and then within minutes to an order to leave immediately.

The Juanillas family were among tens of thousands of residents forced to evacuate their homes outside Denver as wildfires fueled by winds up to 105 mph (169 km/h) engulfed parts of two cities and burned an estimated 580 homes, hotels and stores. center.

Instead of opening Christmas presents at home in President City as they had planned, Guanella, his wife, their three children, and their three dogs were staying at a friend’s home in Denver and hoping their home would still stand.

“Those gifts are still under the tree at the moment…hopefully,” Gwanella said.

At least one medic and six others were injured in the fires that started Thursday morning, unusually late in the year and after a very dry fall and a virtually snow-free winter so far. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Bailey acknowledged that more injuries and deaths may be possible due to the intensity of the fires that quickly swept the area.

“This is the kind of fire we can’t face head on,” Bailey said. “We already had deputy sheriffs and firefighters in the areas that had to withdraw because they just swept through,” he added.

As night fell, officials were monitoring how the winds were reacting and the fires reacted to determine when crews would be able to get in and begin assessing damage and searching for any casualties.

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

Neighboring towns are filled with middle and upper class subdivisions surrounded by malls, parks, and schools. Located between Denver and Boulder, the area is a mountainside town belonging to the University of Colorado.

The residents were evacuated fairly quietly and orderly, but the winding streets in the subdivisions soon became clogged as people tried to get out. Sometimes it took the cars 45 minutes to advance half a mile (less than one kilometer).

Small fires broke out here and there in surprising places – on the lawn in the middle or in the garbage in the middle of the parking lot – where gusts of wind caused the fire to break out and spread. The changing winds caused the sky to turn from clear to smoke and then back again as sirens sounded nearby.

A video taken by a passerby outside a Superior Costco store showed a horrific scene with winds blowing through barren trees in a parking lot surrounded by gray skies, misty sun and small fires strewn across the ground.

Leah Angsman and her husband saw a similar sky as they returned home to Louisville from Denver International Airport after being away for the holidays. As they sat on the bus heading toward Boulder, Angstmann immediately remembered leaving a clear blue sky and entering clouds of brown and yellow smoke.

“The wind shook the bus so hard that I thought the bus was going to capsize,” she said.

Visibility was so bad that the bus had to stop and wait for half an hour until a Provincial Transportation Authority truck took them to a bend on the highway.

“The sky was dark, dark brown, and dirt was blowing swirls across the pavement like snakes,” she said.

Vignesh Kasinath, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado, has been evacuated from one of the president’s neighborhoods with his wife and parents. Kasinath said the family was overwhelmed by the warning of a sudden eviction and worried about the chaos as they tried to leave.

“It was only because I was an activist on Twitter that I learned about this,” said Kasinath, who said he had not received an official notice of the eviction from the authorities.

Bailey said the first fire broke out just before 10:30 a.m. and was “attacked very quickly and laid out later in the day and is currently being monitored” with no structures missing.

A second bushfire, reported shortly after 11 a.m., “rapidly spread east,” Bailey said. The fire spans an area of ​​2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers).

Several fires broke out in the area on Thursday due to downed power lines.

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

The Front Range area of ​​Colorado, where most of the state’s population lives, has experienced very mild, dry fall, and winters thus far have mostly been dry. Denver set a record for most consecutive days without snow before it hit a small storm on December 10, and no snow has fallen since, although snow was expected in the area on Friday.

Scientists say climate change is making weather more extreme and increasing the frequency and destruction of wildfires. Historical droughts and heat waves have made wildfires difficult in the western United States.

90 percent of Boulder County is experiencing severe or severe drought, and it hasn’t seen heavy rain since midsummer.

“With any snow on the ground, this would never have happened the way it did,” said Snow Hydrologist Keith Mosselman, who was at home when Thursday’s fires broke out nearby.

This severe fire hazard is expected in September and October after a dry summer, Mosselman said, but that the lack of rain late in the season is very unusual.

Mosselman said the National Weather Service is expecting up to one foot of snow tomorrow in Boulder, and that the humidity will bring great relief.

Gwanella said he heard from his firefighting friend that his family home was still standing Thursday night. And now he could just wait and see if that was true.

“You’re just waiting to see if your favorite restaurant is still around, and if the schools your kids go to are still there,” Gwanella said. “You’re just waiting for some clarity, I hope tomorrow.”

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Associated Press journalist Brittany Peterson contributed to this report. McCombs reported from Salt Lake City. Nieberg is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that puts journalists in local newsrooms to report on issues that haven’t been covered.

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