SUPERIOR, Colo. — An overnight dumping of snow and frigid temperatures compounded the misery of hundreds of Colorado residents who started off the new year trying to salvage what remains of their homes after a wind-whipped wildfire tore through the Denver suburbs.
At least 6 inches (1.8 meters) of snow and temperatures in the single digits cast an eerie scene Saturday amid the still-smoldering remains of homes destroyed in Thursday’s wildfire that raced through a suburban area that lies between Denver and Boulder. The smell of smoke still permeated streets that were closed off by National Guard soldiers in Humvees despite the dramatic weather change.
Red Cross volunteers provided electric space heaters for thousands of people whose homes were spared by the fire. This was in response to the efforts of utility crews who tried to restore electricity and natural gas.
Though seven people suffered injuries in the fire, no fatalities were reported. The wildfire erupted around Louisville and Superior. They are neighboring communities located about 20 miles (32 km) northeast of Denver and have a combined total population of 34,000. It was believed that more than 500 houses were destroyed.
Although the blaze erupted over 9.4 miles (24 km2), it was not considered an immediate danger.
Family members who fled flames without warning started returning home to find devastation in their neighborhood on Friday. Blocks of homes burned to the ground stood alongside houses that were not damaged by fire.
“For 35 years I walked out my front door, I saw beautiful homes,” Eric House said. “Now when I walk out, my home’s standing. I walk out my front door and this is what I see.”
Cathy Glaab discovered that Superior’s home had become a heap of charred, twisted and destroyed debris. This was just one of the seven homes that had been destroyed.
“The mailbox is standing,” Glaab said, trying to crack a smile through tears. She added sadly, “So many memories.”
She said that despite the destruction, they plan to rebuild their house which she and her husband had owned since 1998. The land is surrounded by natural spaces and the couple enjoy the view from their back yard of the mountain ranges.
Rick Dixon worried that there might be no place to call home after seeing the firefighters rescue his house from flames on TV. Dixon and his family found their home mostly torn apart, although the roof was visible.
“We thought we lost everything,” he said, as he held his mother-in-law’s china in padded containers. They also retrieved sculptures that belonged to Dixon’s father and piles of clothes still on hangers.
Tens of thousands fled as the flames rose over poor neighborhoods at alarming speeds, propelled up to 105 mph by guests.
Investigating the cause of this fire is ongoing. Officials from emergency services said that there was no evidence of downed power lines near the spot where the fire started.
Some roads were still closed so people made their way back home to collect clothes and medicine, to switch off water pressure to avoid freezing pipes, and to check if there was still a house. People walked down the street carrying bags and wagons, pulling their suitcases along.
David Marks stood on a hillside overlooking Superior with others, using a pair of binoculars and a long-range camera lens to see if his house, and those of his neighbors, were still there, but he couldn’t tell for sure whether his place was OK. He claimed that three of his closest friends were also lost.
From the top of the hill, he had seen the fire from his window.
“By the time I got up here, the houses were completely engulfed,” he said. “I mean, it happened so quickly. I’ve never seen anything like that. … Just house after house, fences, just stuff flying through the air, just caught on fire.”
Friday’s declaration by President Joe Biden of a major natural disaster in the area was followed by an order for federal assistance be given to all affected.
Following a very dry year and an almost snowless winter, the wildfire started unusually late.
Joe Pelle of Boulder County said over 500 homes had been damaged. The governor and he both said that more than 500 homes were likely to have been destroyed. Jared Polis 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 because of the danger of fire and fallen power lines.
Superior and Louisville are full of upper-middle and middle class neighborhoods with shopping centers. There is also a variety of parks, schools and other amenities. This area lies between Denver and Boulder. Boulder is home to Colorado University.
According to climate scientists, extreme weather patterns are making wildfires and other destructive events more common.
Ninety percent of Boulder County is in severe or extreme drought, and it hadn’t seen substantial rainfall since mid-summer. Denver had its first snowfall since the wildfires began on December 10, when it set a new record.
Bruce Janda confronted the death of his Louisville residence of 25-years in person on Friday.
“We knew that the house was totaled, but I felt the need to see it, see what the rest of the neighborhood looked like,” he said. “We’re a very close knit community on this street. Everyone knows each other, and they all love each others. It’s hard to see this happen to all of us.”
The report was written by Thomas Peipert (Louisville, Colorado); Thalia Beaty (New York); and Brady McCombs (Salt Lake City). Nieberg is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America, a non-profit national service program, places journalists in local newsrooms so they can report on uncovered topics.
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