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Colorado wildfires burn hundreds of homes and force evacuations

Smoke from a wildfire in Superior, Colo.
All 13,000 residents of Superior, Colo., were ordered to evacuate Thursday because of a wildfire driven by strong winds.
(David Zelio / Associated Press)
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An estimated 580 homes, a hotel and a shopping center have burned and tens of thousands of people were evacuated in wind-fueled wildfires outside Denver, officials said Thursday evening.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said one injury has been reported and he didn’t rule out the possibility of more injuries or deaths to come given the intensity of fires that quickly swept across the region as winds gusted up to 105 mph.

The first fire erupted just before 10:30 a.m. and was “attacked pretty quickly and laid down later in the day and is currently being monitored,” with no structures lost, Pelle said.

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A second wildfire, reported just after 11 a.m., “ballooned and spread rapidly east,” Pelle said. The blaze spans 2.5 square miles and has engulfed parts of the area in smoky, orangish skies and sent residents scrambling to get to safety.

Thursday night’s wind activity will determine when crews are able to go in and begin assessing the damage and searching for any victims.

“This is the kind of fire we can’t fight head on,” Pelle said. “We actually had deputy sheriffs and firefighters in areas that had to pull out because they just got overrun.”

The city of Louisville, which has a population of about 21,000, was ordered to evacuate after all 13,000 residents in Superior were told to leave. The neighboring towns are roughly 20 miles northwest of Denver.

Several blazes started in the area Thursday, at least some sparked by downed power lines.

Six people who were injured in the fires were being treated at UCHealth Broomfield Hospital, spokesperson Kelli Christensen said. A nearby portion of U.S. Highway 36 was shut down.

Colorado’s Front Range, where most of the state’s population lives, had an extremely dry and mild fall, and winter so far has continued to be mostly dry. Snow was expected Friday in the region, though.

Video captured by a bystander outside a Superior Costco store showed winds whipping through trees in the parking lot surrounded by gray skies, a hazy sun and small fires scattered across the ground.

As states agree to leave more water in the Colorado River reservoir, Native tribes get more involved after a history of being left on the water management sidelines.

Leah Angstman and her husband saw similar skies while returning to their Louisville home from Denver International Airport after being away for the holidays. As they were sitting on the bus going toward Boulder, Angstman recalled leaving clear blue skies and abruptly entering clouds of brown and yellow smoke.

“The wind rocked the bus so hard that I thought the bus would tip,” she wrote in a message to the Associated Press.

The visibility was so poor that the bus had to pull over, and they waited a half-hour until a regional transit authority van escorted them to a turnaround on the highway. There she saw four fires burning in bushes across the highway, she said.

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

The best we can hope for is incremental progress — two steps forward, one step back, a string of little victories.

Angstman ended up evacuating, getting in a car with her husband and driving northeast without knowing where they would end up.

Vignesh Kasinath, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado in Boulder, evacuated from a neighborhood in Superior with his wife and her parents. Kasinath said the family was overwhelmed because of the sudden evacuation warning and anxious from the chaos while trying to leave.

“It’s only because I am active on Twitter I came to know about this,” said Kasinath, who said he did not receive an official evacuation notice from authorities.

The fires prompted Gov. Jared Polis to declare a state of a emergency, allowing the state to access disaster emergency funds.

The evacuations come as climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, scientists say. A historic drought and heat waves have made wildfires harder to fight in the U.S. West.

Associated Press writer Colleen Slevin contributed to this report.


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