Tens of thousands of Coloradans driven from their neighborhoods by a wind-whipped wildfire anxiously waited to learn what was left standing of their lives Friday as authorities reported more than 500 homes were feared destroyed.
At least seven people were injured, but there were no immediate reports of any deaths or anyone missing in the aftermath of the blaze that erupted outside Denver on Thursday and swept over drought-stricken neighborhoods with terrifying speed, propelled by gusts up to 105 mph (169 kph).
“We might have our very own New Year’s miracle on our hands if it holds up that there was no loss of life,” Gov. Jared Polis said, noting that many people had just minutes to evacuate.
By first light Friday, the towering flames that had lit up the night sky were gone, leaving smoldering homes and charred trees and fields. The winds had died down, and light snow soon began falling, raising hopes it could snuff out hot spots.
The fire erupted in around Louisville and Superior, neighboring towns about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Denver with a combined population of 34,000. Residents were ordered to flee as the flames closed in, casting a smoky, orange haze over the landscape.
The flames broke out unusually late in the year, following an extremely dry fall and amid a winter nearly devoid of snow so far.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said more than 500 homes were probably destroyed. He and the governor said as many as 1,000 homes might have been lost, though that won’t be known until crews can assess the damage.
“It’s unbelievable when you look at the devastation that we don’t have a list of 100 missing persons,” the sheriff said.
The sheriff said some communities were reduced to just “smoking holes in the ground.” He urged residents to wait for the all-clear to go back, warning that it was still too dangerous in many neighborhoods because of fire and fallen power lines.
Sarah Owens, her husband, adult son and their dog got out of their Superior home within 10 minutes of learning about the evacuation from a Facebook post. But as everyone tried leaving by way of the winding streets of the affluent Rock Creek neighborhood, it took them 1 1/2 hours to go 2 miles (3.2 kilometers).
Once they safely found their way to a pet-friendly hotel, their cellphones and computers could not provide them with the only thing they wanted to know: Was their house still standing?
“The good news is I think our house may be OK,” Owens said.
But from now on, she said, she plans to have a bag packed in case of another fire.
“I never thought a brush fire could cause this kind of destruction,” Owens said. “I want to stay here. No matter where you live, there are always going to be natural disasters.”
Mike Guanella and his family were relaxing at their home in Superior and looking forward to celebrating a belated Christmas when reports of a nearby grass fire quickly gave way to an order to leave immediately.
Instead of opening presents, Guanella and his wife, their three children and three dogs were staying a friend’s house in Denver, hoping their house was still standing.
“Those presents are still under the tree right now — we hope,” he said.
Sophia Verucchi and her partner, Tony Victor, returned to their apartment in Broomfield, on the edge of Superior, to find that it was spared any serious damage. They had fled the previous afternoon with just Victor’s guitar, bedding and their cat, Senor Gato Blanco.
“We left thinking it was a joke. We just felt like we were going to come back. At 5 o’clock, we thought, maybe we’re not coming back,” Verucchi said. But they got an email in the morning saying it was OK to return.
“Seeing the news and seeing all the houses burnt, we just feel very lucky,” Verucchi said.
The two towns are filled with middle- and upper-middle-class subdivisions with shopping centers, parks and schools. The area is between Denver and Boulder, home to the University of Colorado.
By late morning Friday, the blaze had burned at least 9.4 square miles (24 square kilometers) but appeared to be contained, the sheriff said.
Scientists say climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Typically, Colorado wildfires have not been as headline-grabbing as those in California that have destroyed thousands of homes. But last year, the state saw an unprecedented wildfire season, with three of the largest fires in state history. Those were primarily in mountainous areas, not in suburban subdivisions.
In anticipation of a long fire season this year, Colorado lawmakers set aside millions for more equipment and other resources, including extending contracts for air tankers and helicopters.
Colorado’s Front Range, where most of the state’s population lives, had an extremely dry and mild fall, and winter has been mostly dry so far. Denver set a record for consecutive days without snow before it got a small storm on Dec. 10, its last snowfall before the wildfires broke out.
Ninety percent of Boulder County is in severe or extreme drought, and it hasn’t seen substantial rainfall since mid-summer.
Guanella said he heard from a firefighter friend that his home was still standing Thursday night. But he could only wait and see.
“You’re just waiting to hear if your favorite restaurant is still standing, if the schools that your kids go to are still standing,” he said. “You’re just waiting to get some clarity.”
Brittany Peterson, Patty Nieberg And Colleen Slevin, The Associated Press