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Colorado wildfire: officials investigate blaze that destroyed nearly 1,000 homes

Colorado wildfire: officials investigate blaze that destroyed nearly 1,000 homes thumbnail

Search teams looked for three missing people on Sunday in snow-covered but smoldering debris from a massive Colorado wildfire, while people who escaped the flames sorted through what was left and investigators tried to determine its cause.

The flames ripped through at least 9.4 sq miles and left nearly 1,000 homes and other buildings destroyed in suburbs between Denver and Boulder.

It came unusually late in the year following an extremely dry fall and amid a winter nearly devoid of snow. Experts say those conditions, along with high winds, helped the fire spread.

In hard-hit Louisville on Sunday, Susan Hill walked her dog in the well-below freezing chill, down a snowy street. She choked up as she remembered seeing the sky change color from the hill where she used to watch fireworks and then a sprint out of town with her college-age son and the dog, cat and the fire box with birth certificates and other documents.

The flames stopped about 100 yards from her property, and she slept on Saturday night in her home using a space heater and hot water bottles to stay warm.

“I don’t even know how to describe it,” she said. “It’s so sad. It’s so awful. It’s just devastating.”

In the burned-out neighborhood near Hill’s home, a US Mail carrier checked still-standing brick and stone boxes for outgoing mail. The fire came so quickly people might have put bills or other letters in there, she said, and she didn’t want someone to steal them.

While homes that burned to the foundations were still smoldering, the blaze was no longer considered an immediate threat especially with snow and frigid temperatures.

“A day late and a dollar short,” Hill said of the snow, which scientists said typically prevents winter fires that spread in dry grass.

The Colorado governor, Jared Polis, and federal officials were touring some of the damaged neighborhoods.

The cause of the fire was under investigation. Utility officials found no downed power lines around where the fire broke out. The Boulder county sheriff, Joe Pelle, said authorities were pursuing tips and had executed a search warrant at “one particular location”. He declined to give details.

Authorities initially said everyone was accounted for. But a Boulder county spokeswoman, Jennifer Churchill, said reports of three people missing were later discovered. The search was complicated by burning debris and snow, officials said.

Of at least 991 buildings destroyed by the fire, most were homes. But the blaze also burned through eight businesses at a shopping center in Louisville, including a nail salon and a Subway restaurant.

In neighboring Superior, 12 businesses were damaged, including a Target, Chuck E Cheese, Tesla dealership, a hotel and the town hall.

The two towns are about 20 miles north-west of Denver with a combined population of 34,000.

Utility crews expected to get most electricity restored on Sunday, but warned gas service might take longer.

People lined up to get donated space heaters, bottled water and blankets at Red Cross shelters. Xcel Energy urged other residents to use fireplaces and wood stoves to stay warm and keep their pipes at home from freezing.

A Superior resident, Jeff Markley, arrived in his truck to pick up a heater. He said he felt lucky to be “just displaced” since his home is intact.

“We’re making do, staying with friends, and upbeat for the new year. Gotta be better than this last one,” Markley said.

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