The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hundreds of homes burned, tens of thousands evacuated in fire said to be most destructive in Colorado history

Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in Boulder County, Colo., after multiple grass fires were spread by 90 mph gusts on Dec. 30. (Video: The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this article said William Shrum had an emergency bed in his vehicle because he was worried about wildfires. He was referring to a bag, not a bed. This version has been corrected.

BOULDER, Colo. — A wind-fueled grass fire in Colorado burned hundreds of homes in a matter of hours and forced thousands of people to evacuate Thursday, officials said, as flames rapidly spread through a region that has seen an unusually dry December.

Whole neighborhoods were engulfed in flames as the fire advanced through Superior and Louisville, two towns about eight miles outside Boulder. In the Sagamore subdivision, 370 homes were believed lost, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said, and 210 more were feared destroyed in another part of Superior. Several businesses in a Target shopping complex also burned. Authorities also ordered the evacuation of Meadow View, a community between Denver and Boulder.

“We’re potentially talking about over 500 homes,” Pelle said. That is likely to make it the most destructive fire in state history, according to local tallies.

Earlier in the day, the National Weather Service warned that the situation was “life-threatening” — urging residents of Superior and Louisville to leave immediately. The towns have a combined population of more than 34,000, and the evacuations triggered frantic escapes and long traffic lines during the height of the holiday season. Later in the day, Gov. Jared Polis (D) told people who were out watching the fires to stop clogging roads and make way for first responders.

There were no immediate reports of deaths, but officials warned that it would take time before the full toll of the damage is known.

The Marshall Fire and a second, smaller blaze farther north — the Middle Fork Fire — are believed to have been sparked by downed power lines, according to the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. Meteorologists recorded winds gusting up to 100 mph that pushed the flames in the direction of urban areas and increased the fire’s size to over 1,600 acres.

“It’s absolutely devastating to lose the number of homes, businesses that we’ve seen,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jennifer Stark said from her office in Boulder. “It’s historic and devastating to the people who live here.”

Wildfires are becoming worse and, increasingly, a year-round threat in Colorado, state records show. All of the state’s 20 biggest wildfires have occurred since 2001, and four of the five largest since 2018.

Although there is “potential for fires year-round, depending on the conditions,” most fires in the area take place during the drier and hotter seasons, Superior Mayor Clint Folsom said.

The summer brought about a barrage of wildfires across the West — spurred by heat waves, drought and dry vegetation. The conditions have not improved through the colder months, in which the state has been grappling with a record-setting lack of snow. Those dry conditions, along with strong winds, are believed to have quickly intensified the blaze.

“Unfortunately, it’s kind of the perfect storm,” Folsom said.

Stark, of the National Weather Service, said La Niñaa natural cooling of the tropical Pacific Ocean that influences weather around the globe — and an extended period of higher-than-normal temperatures probably contributed to the drought.

“Any spark is going to race and get out of control very quickly,” she said.

The intense winds were complicating firefighting operations.

“My county is on fire,” Pelle said. “But this is the kind of fire you can’t fight head-on.”

In Superior, a town with a population of about 13,000 that is known as a family-oriented community with open spaces and trails, damage was widespread. For many, the day started out like any other before a holiday weekend: stocking up on food and running errands.

Jason Fletcher, a 36-year-old Colorado native who was at a Chuck E. Cheese in the town with his family, said he had never been “this close to a fire.”

“It was a typical morning. Blue skies,” Fletcher said, before he and his family started to smell something. A few minutes later, dark smoke began to drift outside.

Robert Gutierrez, 20, was among the scores of shoppers at the town’s busy Costco earlier Thursday when store employees began urging customers to evacuate.

Gutierrez ran to his car and raced to his home in Longmont, roughly 20 miles north of Superior, but the smoke made it difficult to see. Flames licked the side of the road. He didn’t realize he was driving toward the fire until a trucker traveling in the other direction began honking at him.

“I don’t know who he is, but I’m extremely grateful for him,” Gutierrez said. “The second I turned around, you could start seeing the flames coming up. Who knows what would have happened if he didn’t warn me.”

William Shrum, 72, lost power in his mobile home about noon — shortly after the fires began — and said he could feel wind gusts shaking his unit as he sat at his kitchen table. Thirty minutes later, he was contacted by the manager of his community and told to evacuate.

Long concerned about wildfires, Shrum had an emergency bag ready in his car, although he still forgot essentials like a toothbrush and contact lenses. Thursday night, he was sitting alone at the corner of a basketball court at a recreation center where he planned to take shelter.

“We’ve had a lot of fires nearby, but not right on top of us like this,” he said. “I hope home is still here when I come back.”

In the southeastern Boulder County town of Louisville, the 114-bed Avista Adventist Hospital said it had evacuated all of its patients — including those in its emergency departments, neonatal intensive care and intensive care units. The hospital’s staffers were sheltering in place, and patients were moved to two other hospitals.

Amanda Miller and her two children live along Coal Creek Trail in Louisville, next to a stretch of tallgrass prairie that has been tinder-dry. Around noon, she’d noticed the sky’s strange appearance and wondered whether severe weather was in store. When she saw the thick smoke, she quickly recognized the danger.

Miller instructed her 12-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter to grab their shoes and get their cat.

“That’s all we left with,” Miller, a 44-year-old journalist, said Thursday evening from a hotel 10 miles from her family’s home.

Just blocks after driving out of their subdivision, they couldn’t even see the neighborhood anymore. Later, as they headed east over the hills, “you could see patches of orange, burning hot in clumps,” Miller said.

She has no idea if her two-story house is still standing.

The Boulder Office of Emergency Management urged out-of-towners to stop calling its call center. “If you live outside of Boulder County you are NOT in any danger at this time,” it said in a tweet, adding that its phone lines were overwhelmed.

Some six miles away from the fires, portions of the city of Broomfield — including the Holiday Inn Express and the Hyatt House — were placed under pre-evacuation orders. The police department later ordered the Interlocken area to evacuate, before lifting all mandatory and pre-evacuation orders just before midnight.

Inmates at the local detention center were evacuated, said Rachel Haslett, a spokeswoman for the local police department. She declined to disclose the number of people moved, citing security concerns, but said that the facility typically houses about 80 inmates on any given day.

The treacherous winds have resulted in road closures and toppled “high profile vehicles,” the Colorado State Patrol said in a tweet. Denver International Airport was placed on a ground delay, putting departing flights behind schedule. Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, which is in Broomfield, was closed as of late Thursday, an airport official confirmed.

More than 20,000 people had been left in the dark Thursday, according to the utility company Xcel Energy, after the fires triggered power outages. Later in the evening, Xcel said that it was ending some controlled outages and that more customers would have power restored overnight.

Some were frantically looking for lost pets. A dog-boarding facility in Superior was forced to evacuate dogs without alerting their owners. The dogs were sent to the Boulder Humane Society and to City Bark in Thornton, said Amy Hwang, a 28-year-old who lives near Denver and has been using social media to help owners find their pets.

Polis, the governor, declared a state of emergency to facilitate access to emergency funds that support fire response. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it was supporting firefighting costs linked to the Marshall Fire.

“There is no way to quantify the price of a loss,” Polis said at a news conference, acknowledging how quickly hundreds of residents had lost homes and belongings, including family heirlooms and precious mementos.

Many residents had little time to flee, grabbing whatever they could at a moment’s notice. Nancy Gordon, 85, threw a change of clothes and her iPad into a bag after seeing smoke clouds and noticing an eerie silence in her neighborhood around 2:30 p.m. She turned on the television and saw flames engulfing homes in nearby Superior.

“We could see the red sky,” she said. “It was really scary.”

She’s not sure what happened to her home but said she was grateful to be safe at a shelter, sitting with blankets and a book. Asked whether leaving her home had been hard, she said: “I just closed the door and walked out. C’est la vie.”

Paúl reported from Lakeville, Minn., Armario from Miami, and Jeong from Seoul. Susan Levine and Reis Thebault in Washington and Bryan Pietsch in Seoul contributed to this report.

Read more:

Denver still hasn’t seen snow this fall. That’s a record.

Multiple rounds of severe weather to usher in new year in Deep South

Alaska hits 67 degrees, setting new December record