LOUISVILLE, Colorado – It took just a few hours for the flames to force their way of unimaginable destruction through the drought-starved neighborhoods between Denver and Boulder.
By Friday morning, as smoke from the most devastating wildfire in the state’s history cleared, more than 500 homes, and possibly as many as 1,000, were destroyed. Hundreds of people who had fled in haste returned to rubble, everything they owned was cremated in the rapidly moving blaze. Entire neighborhoods had been reduced to ashes.
“It looked like the apocalypse,” said Ruthie Werner, a resident of Louisville, Colorado, who had gone shopping at a Target store on Thursday but arrived to find the parking lot on fire.
Despite the astonishing destruction, no deaths were immediately recorded, a figure which Governor Jared Polis said would be a “New Year’s miracle” if sustained.
As it turned out, people had just enough time to evacuate, with passports and pets, toothbrushes and clothing, as the swift flames, fueled by 110 mph winds , passed highways and shopping malls and hit their homes.
It “was not a forest fire in the forest; it was a suburban and city fire, ”said Mr. Polis, a Democrat who lives in Boulder County and described receiving texts and voicemail messages from friends describing what they had lost.
“The Costco where we all buy, the target where we buy our children’s clothes – all surrounded and damaged,” he said.
As the housing estates remained stranded on Friday, the streets emptied and fell silent as the charred wreckage continued to smolder, residents told heartbreaking escapes. Unlike the wild mountain fires, which often burn over weeks, Thursday’s destruction unfolded in minutes and hours, as fierce gusts of wind threw flames across the suburban landscapes with virtually no warning. .
“We were at the house, and it was a sunny day, and all of a sudden the weather wasn’t nice and sunny anymore,” said Laurie Draper, who lost the Louisville house where she had lived with her husband since 1994. and raised two children. “We could smell the fire, then there was smoke in the neighborhood. “
Ms Draper said the wind was blowing so hard that it was difficult even to open the car doors. They escaped with little more than Persian rugs, their German Shepherd, and the clothes they were wearing. On Friday, she lamented that she did not keep the items that belonged to her late mother.
“I didn’t take the right things,” she said.
Colorado is no stranger to wildfires, but Thursday came at an unusual time. Indeed, over the years wildfires in the American West have worsened – larger and larger, spreading faster, and reaching mountainous elevations that were once too wet and cool to withstand heavy fires. What was once a seasonal phenomenon has become a threat year-round, with fires burning later in the fall and winter.
Recent research has suggested that the heat and drought associated with global warming are the main reasons for the increasing prevalence of larger and more powerful fires, as precipitation regimes have been disrupted, snow melts earlier, and grasslands and forests are burnt.
Peter Goble, a climate scientist on duty at the Colorado Climate Center, said the Boulder area had experienced a wet spring followed by “extremely dry, since about mid-summer.” He added that “an event like this puts into context just how dangerous and potentially fatal winter season fires that occur primarily in the grasslands can be.”
As the fire raged and rushed towards them, shocked residents of Boulder County desperately tried to save what they could. Liz Burnham, whose Louisville apartment was narrowly spared by the fire, recovered clothes, toiletries, important documents and letters from her mother.
“At one point the smoke got so thick I couldn’t breathe – I decided to pack a bag,” Ms. Burnham said. She added, “I have this video of flames right across the street. I just panicked. It freaked me out so much. I grabbed everything I had packed and my dog, and we just ran to the car.
Others had no home to return to and were unable to save their possessions.
David Hayes, the police chief of Louisville, a suburb of about 20,000, lost the four-bedroom house where he had lived for 30 years. When he attended a press conference on Thursday, he was unaware of the condition of his home. He passed later that night and saw the flames.
“I didn’t want to take advantage of my status, so I didn’t even walk up the aisle,” said Chief Hayes. “So I just watched it burn from there for a little while and walked back to the office. Now it’s just ashes.
The year 2021 had already been miserable in Boulder County, marred by a relentless pandemic resurfacing and a mass grocery store shooting in March that left 10 people dead. As locals took stock of the fire damage, some expressed a sense of resignation that what happened on Thursday was a chilling new part of what it means to live in a landscape marked by global warming. Earth.
“I see my future,” said Angelica Kalika, 36, of nearby Broomfield. “I grew up in Colorado, and it’s a place where I had snowy Christmases and a beautiful 60 degree summer. But for me, it’s a moment of deep awareness of climate change when there is a forest fire outside my door. “
Colorado experienced the three largest wildfires in its history in the summer of 2020, each burning more than 200,000 acres, Polis said. But those fires burned forests and federally owned land, he said, while Thursday’s blaze destroyed suburban developments and shopping malls.
Boulder County officials said the cause of the blaze was still under investigation. Although they initially suspected that downed power lines may have played a role, they said on Friday that there had been no such cases in the area where the blaze started.
Whatever the cause, the flames quickly roared through the open prairies towards the small, century-old mining town of Superior, then burst into the mall and expensive housing estates of adjacent Louisville, a fast-growing town that is an eternal choice on the lists of the most livable small communities.
“I thought, how is it in the suburbs?” Said Tamara Anderson, who fled her home in Louisville Thursday afternoon as firefighters marched down her street shouting for people to get out. “And then I’m like, Oh, yeah, 100 miles an hour winds, and it got dry.” And that’s because of climate change.
Ms Anderson, who spent Thursday evening in a hotel, said her home was spared but three others in her neighborhood were destroyed, part of what officials have described as a “patchwork” of destruction.
The flames destroyed some buildings but left others intact, apparently to chance.
A video posted by a local television station showed a cul-de-sac where one house had been destroyed, while the others appeared to be intact. In one neighborhood, a row of about 10 piles of still smoking rubble was located next to other houses that appeared to have escaped severe damage.
“I think it’s indicative of our future,” said Laurie Silver, a resident of a nearby suburb who stood near the smoking remains of her cousin’s Louisville townhouse Friday morning. “And I don’t know what it will take for people to take him seriously. Maybe, when it directly affects people where they live.
Ms Silver said her cousin traveled to Tennessee. His only remaining belongings were what he had packed in his hand luggage.
On New Years Eve, with the blaze largely contained and a blizzard intensifying promising to help limit further damage, displaced residents faced another uncertain night in shelters or with friends or relatives, some still waiting to see if their property has been damaged.
“If our house is damaged by smoke, who determines that? Said Ben Sykora, who rushed out of his rental home in Superior, Colorado, after retrieving a backup hard drive and a few extra clothes. “I don’t want to think too much materially, but we’re all kinda waiting to see how much this will turn our lives upside down. At the moment, we just don’t know.
Boulder County and surrounding areas of Colorado’s Front Range live with the frequent threat of wildfires, although these concerns have historically been associated more with the summer and fall months and the wooded hills to the west. towns. Few were prepared for Thursday’s sudden attack.
“You think you’re safe here – these things are happening in the mountains,” said Steve Sarin, whose apartment narrowly escaped destruction. “Here we believe that we are relatively protected against the dangers of forest fires. Yesterday was a great wake-up call.
Dana Goldstein, Isabella Grullón Paz, Michael Levenson and Alyssa Lukpat contributed reporting.