BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — Outside the smoldering rubble of an apartment building, Alex Hager distributed coffee and breakfast sandwiches Friday from the back of his pickup truck.
First the East Troublesome Fire, the second-largest wildfire in Colorado’s history, blew through more than 193,000 acres in adjacent Grand County in fall 2020. Then a gunman killed 10 people at a Boulder grocery store in March. And through it all the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed at least 10,000 Coloradans.
And on Thursday, runaway grass fires bore down on the area amid 100-mph-plus winds and eviscerated the homes of at least 500 families just before the dawn of 2022.
“Anything to help,” said Hager, of Boulder City. “This community has been through a lot this year.”
No deaths were reported from the Marshall Fire and the smaller Middle Fork Fire, nor was anyone reported missing — a fact that Gov. Jared Polis (D) called “nothing short of miraculous.” But officials warned that the extent of the damage remained unknown, as did the provenance of the blazes.
“If people chose not to evacuate, didn’t hear the knocking from the deputies, I’m afraid that we are going to learn of some fatalities in these homes, because people literally had minutes to get out,” said Clint Folsom, mayor of the hard-hit town of Superior.
Some residents returned to their houses Friday after officials lifted evacuation orders. But Superior and Louisville in Boulder County, with a combined 34,000 people, remained inaccessible as the Colorado State Patrol warned that flames were still present there.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle’s estimate that more than 500 homes burned means the blaze is likely to have destroyed the most property of any fire in Colorado history. Pelle said the total may surpass 1,000 homes and several commercial buildings. The county is raising money for displaced people at coloradogives.org.
More than 16,000 customers were without power as of mid-Friday, according to utility company Xcel Energy. Police set up checkpoints to keep people at least 1½ miles from Superior’s destroyed areas, and military Humvees blocked roads.
“In many of those neighborhoods that are currently blocked off, it’s still too dangerous to return,” Pelle told reporters Friday. “We saw still-active fire in many places this morning. We saw downed power lines, we saw a lot of risk that we’re still trying to mitigate.”
Long lines of cars formed Thursday as people fled during a traditionally quiet holiday week. Photos showed houses ablaze and clouds of smoke climbing high into the air as the fire mushroomed to about 6,000 acres. As it began to snow Friday, officials said that they did not expect fire growth.
Although authorities initially said downed power lines had probably sparked the blazes, the Boulder Office of Emergency Management said Friday that Xcel had inspected the ignition area and found no downed lines. Xcel discovered some “compromised” communications lines that residents could have confused for power lines, officials said, but communication lines would not have caused a fire. An investigation into the cause is ongoing.
The blazes come amid a calamitous year of wildfires in the West, fueled by drought, heat and dry vegetation. The colder months have been unusually dry — a condition that, combined with strong winds, appears to have made this week’s infernos mushroom quickly.
Wildfires pose an increasing threat to Colorado, with four of the state’s largest fires occurring since 2018, according to state records. Colorado’s top 20 largest recorded wildfires have happened since 2001.
On Friday, the scene in Superior was one of “total devastation,” Folsom said, and more challenges were ahead. An approaching cold front and snow threatened to freeze pipes in the homes still standing, and the entire town was without gas, he said. A water-boil advisory remained in effect in Superior and Louisville.
Polis said Friday that he had spoken with President Biden, who was finalizing a major disaster declaration for the area. According to a White House note about the call, “every effort will be made to provide immediate help to people in the impacted communities.” Asked whether he would travel to Colorado, Biden said he “may very well.”
Temporary shelters were stood up to house people in Boulder County, and officials said they planned to publish a list of burned addresses after they assess the damage.
“This was a disaster in fast motion all over the course of half a day,” Polis said. “Many of the families [had] minutes to get whatever they could — their kids, their pets — to get into the car and leave.”
At an evacuation center in Lafayette, just east of Louisville, light snow intermingled with smoke rising in the distance as worried evacuees pulled down their masks to take bites of chocolate doughnuts and milky coffee. About 125 people spent the night on cots there, said Jen Spettel, vice president of the YMCA of Northern Colorado, where the shelter is located.
Red Cross volunteers unloaded pallets of donated water and Powerade as they arrived. A miniature Christmas tree alight with white bulbs stood among boxes of granola bars, cereal and yogurt — a reminder that the tragedy struck during a season meant to be joyous.
“I don’t know if I have a home,” said Veronica Llabres, 72, who grabbed pajamas and a few T-shirts before boarding a bus Thursday to evacuate her Louisville apartment with fellow residents. “I’m not sure what to do next.”
Ten miles north, at the Boulder County Fairgrounds in Longmont, stables housed about 245 horses, six llamas and some chickens. Some owners who lost everything were trying to figure out where to take their horses.
“See the bay and the appaloosa over there in the corner?” said Derek Kirkman, a fairground and campground host for Boulder County, gesturing to a pair of horses roped to a fence. “Their family lost everything — their home, their cars, their fences, their pasture and their barn — everything.”
As a tawny Mustang reared up to kick the edge of a metal stall, Michelle Sander, 48, recounted whisking 19 horses from her ranch on Thursday as the Middle Fork Fire came within a mile of her home.
“The wind was insane, and the smoke was insane, and I was trying in the middle of that to bring the horses into the corrals to load them into the trailer and they were getting all whipped up,” said Sander, executive director of the Hygiene, Colo.-based Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary & Training Network. Authorities were asking for donations of hay and other animal supplies.
Early Friday, commuters in Superior navigated broken traffic lights as police blocked roads leading to downtown. Lines of cars formed on the side of a main thoroughfare as locals waited for permission to check on their homes. A smell of burning plastic lingered in the air, and skies were gray and quiet — a sharp contrast from Thursday’s violent gusts of wind.
Grant Dupre was among those trying to determine how much the wildfires would upend his life. His house just outside the evacuation zone was spared, he said, but he was unsure whether his car had survived after he dropped it off with a mechanic early Thursday for a brake replacement. As he approached the shop Friday, he said an officer told him to turn around to avoid the flames.
Despite that uncertainty, Dupre said he’s more worried about how sinking temperatures will affect his house amid the gas shut-off and about the hundreds of people whose homes burned.
“There’s already a housing shortage here,” he said.
In the hills behind Boulder Valley Christian Church in Boulder County, dozens of homes continued to smolder. Cattle roamed scorched fields where families gathered to spot remnants of their homes through the smoke.
As resident Eric Lundeen set up a drone to try to catch a glimpse of the wreckage, snowflakes began to fall. He held out his hand to catch some of the white specks on his gloves.
“I can’t tell if this is ash or snow coming down,” he said. “I think it’s both.”
Schneider reporter from Superior, Colo.; Oldham from Superior, Longmont and Louisville; Iati from Washington; and Felton from New York. Timothy Bella in Washington and Meryl Kornfield in Wilmington, Del., contributed to this report.