Tens of thousands of Coloradans driven from their neighborhoods by wind-whipped wildfires anxiously waited to learn what was left standing of their lives Friday after the flames burned an estimated 580 homes, a hotel and a shopping center.
At least one first responder and six other people were injured in the blazes that erupted outside Denver on Thursday morning, 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 there could be more injuries — and also deaths — because of the intensity of the fast-moving fires, propelled by winds that gusted up to 105 mph (169 kph).
“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.”
Mike Guanella and his family were relaxing at their home in the city of Superior and looking forward to celebrating a belated Christmas later in the day 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 at 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.
As night fell, officials watched the behavior of the wind and flames to determine when crews could safely go in to assess the damage and search for any victims.
About an inch of snow was forecast for the region Friday, raising hopes it could help suppress the flames.
The neighboring cities of Louisville and Superior, situated about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Denver and home to a combined 34,000 people, were ordered evacuated ahead of the flames, which cast a smoky, orange haze over the landscape and lit up the night sky.
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.
Residents evacuated fairly calmly and in an orderly fashion, but the winding streets quickly became clogged. It sometimes took cars as long as 45 minutes to advance a half-mile.
Small fires cropped up here and there in surprising places — on the grass in a median or in a dumpster in the middle of a parking lot — as gusts caused the flames to jump. Shifting winds caused the skies to turn from clear to smoky and then back again as sirens wailed.
Leah Angstman and her husband were returning to their Louisville home from Denver International Airport after being away for the holidays. They recounted leaving clear blue skies and instantly entering clouds of brown and yellow smoke.
“The wind rocked the bus so hard that I thought the bus would tip,” she said.
The visibility was so poor the bus had to pull over. They waited for a half-hour until a transit authority van escorted the bus to a turnaround on the highway.
“The sky was dark, dark brown, and the dirt was blowing in swirls across the sidewalk like snakes,” she said.
Vignesh Kasinath, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado, evacuated from a neighborhood in Superior with his wife and her parents.
“It’s only because I am active on Twitter I came to know about this,” said Kasinath, who said he did not receive an evacuation notice from authorities.
The first fire erupted just before 10:30 a.m. and was “attacked pretty quickly and laid down later in the day” with no structures lost, the sheriff said. A second blaze reported just after 11 a.m. ballooned and spread rapidly, Pelle said. It covered at least 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers).
Some of the several blazes in the area were sparked by downed power lines, authorities said.
Scientists say climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
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.
“With any snow on the ground, this absolutely would not have happened in the way that it did,” said snow hydrologist Keith Musselman.
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.”
Associated Press journalist Brittany Peterson contributed to this report. McCombs reported from Salt Lake City. Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.