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91-year-old woman’s family wants answers as two remain missing after Colorado fires

LOUISVILLE, CO - JANUARY 02: Charley Ferrera, 8, looks through what remains of her grandfather's house in a neighborhood decimated by the Marshall Fire on January 2, 2022 in Louisville, Colorado. Officials reported that 991 homes were destroyed in the fire, making it the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
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Two people remain missing after last week’s devastating Colorado fires, authorities said Sunday, as the family of a 91-year-old woman last seen in her burning home waited for news.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said officials are searching for a woman in Superior and a man near Marshall, stymied by snow and smoldering debris in the two hard-hit cities less than 20 miles northwest of Denver. Detectives, dogs and coroner’s office staffers were searching the wreckage of the blaze that destroyed nearly 1,000 buildings — most of them homes — but could have been far deadlier, Pelle said.

What caused the fire that erupted Thursday — and exploded with winds of more than 100 mph — is under investigation, the sheriff added. “It’s complicated,” he said at a Sunday afternoon news conference, “and it’s all covered in a foot of snow. … The outcome of that investigation is vital. There’s so much at stake.”

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle provided updates in Boulder County, Colo., on Jan. 2, on the search for missing residents in following wildfires in the state. (Video: The Washington Post)

How extreme climate conditions fueled unprecedented Colorado fire

Authorities have not publicly identified the missing. But family members say they are seeking information on 91-year-old Nadine Turnbull. They said she was last seen at the home she shared with her granddaughter in Superior, close to where authorities think the Marshall Fire ignited.

“The front door was engulfed,” Turnbull’s grandson-in-law Hutch Armstrong said in an interview. “And then they went to the back door and it was engulfed.”

It is difficult to know exactly what happened, he said, because the escape was traumatic for everyone. But he has heard the basic details: A neighbor ran over to help, and Turnbull’s granddaughter got out — then tried to go back for her dogs and her grandmother, who had been “right behind” her.

“From our understanding, the fire marshal just grabbed her and pretty much said: You can’t go back in,” Armstrong said. “Because it was getting bad.”

At first, family members assumed that Turnbull had died in the flames, said Armstrong, 45, who lives in nearby Erie. They had shifted to grieving. Turnbull’s granddaughter mourned her dogs and the woman who raised her, he said, telling others: “I lost two of the things that mean the most to me.”

But then, Armstrong said, they heard on the news that a woman reported missing was safe. They started calling shelters, the local news and law enforcement — anyone who might help them figure out whether that woman was Turnbull.

On Sunday afternoon, he said Turnbull’s loved ones were not sure, after a “frustrating” time prodding authorities for information. He does not blame officials. “Obviously,” he said, “they’ve got a lot of their plates.”

Pelle said at a Saturday news conference that two of five missing-person reports, both involving elderly women, had been “resolved.” The homes of the remaining three were destroyed, Pelle said, meaning the search could be a recovery effort for remains. On Sunday, Pelle said that an additional person, a man, was found “alive and well.”

Asked Sunday afternoon whether Turnbull is still missing, Marshall fire officials declined to provide more details.

Relatives previously told CBS4 that Turnbull has memory loss, and wondered if it’s possible that she made it out but was unable to contact family members. Her great-granddaughter Savanah Garcia Martinez told the news station that family members frantically tried to locate Turnbull as first responders to the fire initially reported no casualties.

“We’re not sure if they arrived and helped her out,” she told CBS4. “Maybe she’s at a facility somewhere. We’re not sure if maybe she got lost in the system, as far as you know with all the evacuations going on.”

Armstrong said Sunday that his wife was with her cousin and Turnbull’s granddaughter who escaped.

Loved ones have been spreading the word about Turnbull on the news, he said, and now “all we want is the answer.”

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