Boulder County Fires: More than 500 houses burn, tens of thousands evacuate as fires continue to spread

· Dec. 30, 2021, 1:23 pm
Wildfire flames and smoke rise above Superior, Colorado, on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021. Dangerously high winds raked the Front Range of Colorado on Thursday, knocking out power, making for dangerous travel conditions, and whipping up wildfires in Boulder County that destroyed hundreds of homes and other structures.

Updated 8:04 p.m.

Editor's note: In the days after this story published, Boulder's sheriffs department and other officials said the origin of the fires was unknown and under investigation, contradicting earlier statements that attributed the fires to downed power lines. Read the latest on the fires here.

Fast-moving grass fires ripped through Boulder County Thursday, torching hundreds of homes and forcing evacuations for tens of thousands of residents.

The fires, fueled by dry conditions and winds that gusted more than 100 mph, were blamed for at least one injury, though authorities said more would likely be reported. As of 8 p.m. on Thursday night, there were no reported fatalities. 

Wildfire flames and smoke rise above Superior, Colorado, on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021. Dangerously high winds raked the Front Range of Colorado on Thursday, knocking out power, making for dangerous travel conditions, and whipping up wildfires in Boulder County that destroyed hundreds of homes and other structures.

The high winds knocked down power lines in multiple areas, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said at a press conference. Early evidence suggests a sparking power line could have ignited the fires. Xcel Energy cut off power to the area earlier on Thursday to prevent downed power lines from sparking and triggering more fires.

The fires, known as the Marshall and Middle Fork fires, brought 40-foot-high flames that engulfed football-field-sized stretches of grass in moments, Pelle said. Before sunset, grass fires spread to nearly 1,600 acres and engulfed more than 500 homes in the town of Superior as it burned near other heavily populated suburbs northwest of Denver, Pelle said.

A winter storm is forecasted to move through the region Friday, which could bring moisture that helps crews contain the fires, Pelle said.

Natalie Warady was at a Costco store shopping for New Years Eve when she had to run out. 

"I heard the people next to me saying, 'Which way do we go? Which way do we go?' And then you walked into what is this tornado of wind and smoke and ash, and you couldn't see anything. And it was shocking," she said. Costco employees told people to leave immediately. Warady left her cart and New Years Eve treats behind.

Late-December wildfires aren't unheard of in Colorado, but the colder fall and winter months used to mean a break from the state’s peak fire season. Scientists and fire ecologists say climate change, fueled by human-made carbon emissions, has added 78 days to the fire season since the 1970s.

Researchers say that the warming temperatures, combined with more intense droughts and larger numbers of people living in wildfire-prone areas, have increased the danger.

Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency Thursday afternoon. Evacuations were ordered for multiple locations across the region. Evacuation centers were set up at the North Boulder Recreation Center, 3170 Broadway in Boulder; the YMCA of Northern Colorado, 2800 Dagny Way in Lafayette and the Rocky Mountain Christian Church, 9447 Niwot Road in Longmont. 

COVID-positive evacuees are being directed to the Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, 3485 Stanford Court in Boulder.

There are multiple road closures north and south of Boulder as the fires spread. U.S. Highway 36 between Broomfield and Boulder is closed for westbound travelers.

Wildfire flames and smoke rise in grassland between neighborhoods in Superior, Colorado, on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

Evacuating under dark and smoky skies

Roselyn Adams and her husband evacuated their Louisville home under dark and smoky skies. Adams said the wind was so intense it blew over their entire back fence.

"We were trying to get out of Louisville and it was just tree limbs all over the road," Adams said.

Adams said she started to panic and pack a bag after noticing the smoke. She called her husband, and he made his way back home from his job in Boulder. A few hours later, authorities issued mandatory evacuation orders, so the couple grabbed the essentials and their two dogs and cat. 

Ash was falling from the sky and covering Adams' car when she and her husband drove to a friend's house in nearby Lafayette.

"I know [Lafayette] is not totally out of the woods, but it was the closest place we could get," Adams said. "We're calling our family letting them know we're OK."

Adams said she could never imagine her neighborhood, just 10 minutes from Boulder, having to be evacuated due to a wildfire. She said the effects of climate change were on her mind as she fled flames in December amid long-term drought and warmer-than-normal temperatures.

Six people were taken to UCHealth Broomfield Hospital for treatment, according to hospital spokesperson Kelli Christensen. She said she couldn't say what kind of injuries the people had, only that they were related to the fire. 

The area's only hospital, Avista Adventist Hospital in Louisville, was evacuated. Patients are being moved to either Longmont United or St. Anthony in Lakewood. Some surgical patients are being kept in the hospital. Families of patients can call 303-661-1848 to find out their whereabouts. 

During the afternoon, Mountain View Deputy Fire Marshal Michelle Kelly said she didn't have an estimate of the number of firefighters working the wildfire. The agency covers more than 200 square miles, including Superior and other nearby towns and unincorporated parts of Boulder and Weld County. 

"We do have resources from all along the front range and mountain communities that are assisting," Kelly said. 
Kelly recommended residents sign up for Everbridge Boulder, which works like reverse 911 and can provide emergency alerts for residents in Boulder County and surrounding municipalities.

Traffic streams south on Indiana Street in Arvada and wildfire smoke forms a pall over Boulder County as dangerously high winds raked the Front Range of Colorado on Thursday.

Power lines down across Colorado 

Xcel Energy reported more than 29,000 customers were without power across Colorado as of 6:30 p.m.

The wildfires also affected Xcel Energy's natural gas system in Summit and Grand counties. The company planned to cut power for some areas over the next six to eight hours to keep the system running and asked customers to limit natural gas use to improve reliability for residents in the mountain areas.

The University of Colorado Boulder reports numerous trees down on campus due to the wind. The National Weather Service in Boulder reported a gust of 105 mph.

The weather service canceled all high wind warnings by 8 p.m., but said some gusty winds may persist.

Caution on the roads

The relentless winds wreaked havoc on roads and highways around the Denver metro. The Colorado State Patrol says tractor-trailers were blown over on State Highway 470 and Highway 93.

The wind also blew over two semi-trucks on the McIntyre Street overpass above State Highway 58 in Jefferson County. An officer on the scene said both trailers were empty. All four lanes on the overpass were closed for a time as crews righted and removed the big rigs.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Two tractor trailers overturned on the McIntyre bridge over Hwy 58 east of Golden Thursday afternoon as dangerous winds rake the Front Range and drive grass fires near Boulder.

CPR's Paolo Zialcita, Esteban Hernandez, Michael Elizabeth Sakas, Joe Wertz and Alejandro A. Alonso Galva contributed to this story.

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