Two fast-moving wildfires driven by strong winds erupted in northern Colorado on Thursday afternoon, destroying close to 600 homes and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee.
At least one first responder and six others were injured, though Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle acknowledged there could be more injuries and deaths could be possible due to the intensity of fires that quickly swept across the region as winds gusted up to 105 mph (169 km/h).
“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 fires, burning to the north and south of the city of Boulder, were fanned by gusts that whipped flames and smoke into a frenzy. Officials said during a Thursday evening news conference that the fires had already blackened 1,600 acres.
The Colorado governor Jared Polis has declared a state of emergency, freeing up disaster emergency funds and providing other resources to aid in the response. During the evening press conference, governor Polis thanked first responders and shared that the National Guard and federal resources were being deployed to aid in the firefight, and would arrive soon. “This fire is not so much a question of resources,” he said. “This fire is a force of nature.”
Emergency call lines were inundated throughout the day and evacuation routes were heavily trafficked, said Pelle during the briefing. “I have never seen anything like it,” he said of the speed and intensity of the fire, which consumed football fields of land in mere seconds. “This was a horrific event.”
Mandatory evacuations were issued Thursday afternoon for the 34,000 people who live in the towns of Superior and Louisville, in Boulder county, as giant black and grey plumes engulfed the residential and commercial areas. Residents in an area of Broomfield were also told to begin preparing to leave.
“Life threatening situation in Superior and Louisville areas!” tweeted the National Weather Service in Boulder, alerting locals to gather their things and leave immediately. “Fast moving fires are in the area.”
Videos posted to social media showed apocalyptic scenes. In one recorded by a shopper evacuating a Costco, throngs of customers are seen rushing outside into a windy parking lot clouded with dense smoke. Local news cameras captured scenes from a distance, showing black and grey plumes whipping through browned hillsides above lines of gridlocked cars inching toward escape.
Hospitals and shopping centers had to be cleared as the flames swept closer, and a nearby portion of US Highway 36 was also shut down because of the fire. Several structures were documented as they burned and officials said initial estimates show more than 580 homes had likely been consumed by the flames. A Target shopping center and hotel also burned.
Strong winds, which downed power lines and overturned big-rigs in the area, are expected to continue into the evening, according to the National Weather Service. With gusts of roughly 80 mph. More than 24,000 people lost power during the windstorm, limiting some from being able to open their garage doors while trying to evacuate. An evacuation center also had to be relocated after the original location lost power.
The extreme conditions have left firefighters with few options to battle the blazes. “There’s really not a whole lot we can do other than make sure people are evacuated,” said Brad Lupher, a firefighter with the city of Boulder, to Denver7, a local news channel about the firefight. “Air support is pretty much a no-go,” he said of the extreme conditions. “All we’re trying to do is just get people safely out.”
The parched area has grappled with severely low levels of precipitation this year, which primed the landscape to burn. Between August and December, the Boulder area received only 1.6in of precipitation, far below its 6.8in average for the same time period.
“Genuinely hard to believe this is happening in late December in Boulder, CO,” climate scientist Daniel Swain wrote on Twitter. “But take a record warm & dry fall, only 1 inch of snow so far this season, & add an extreme (100mph+) downslope windstorm … and extremely fast moving/dangerous fires are the result.” Saying he was at a loss for words, Swain described hearing explosions as homes and ranch buildings went up in flames nearby.
Human-caused climate change has heightened the risks and set the stage for an increase in extreme weather events across the west, that’s been grown warmer and drier over the past 30 years.
“These are the worst conditions I have seen,” Lupher said calling it the perfect storm. “I can’t imagine it being much worse than this.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report