Historic fires burned thousands of acres, destroying hundreds of homes in Colorado after drought and high winds
Tens of thousands of displaced Colorado residents woke up on New Year’s Eve with no idea whether their homes were still standing after the largest fire in state history swept through Boulder and surrounding areas.
Authorities on Friday pleaded with the public to refrain from attempts to return to their neighbourhoods until they were deemed cleared amid the fast-moving flames, which have already levelled about 600 houses, a hotel and shopping centre.
Several fires broke out on Thursday, some sparked by downed power lines and all fuelled by unusually dry conditions and high winds, which were gusting up to 105 mph (169 kph). Colorado was one of the states affected by unprecedented drought in the West over the summer, and Boulder has received far short of its usual rainfall and snow.
Evacuations were ordered for nearby Louisville, which has 21,000 residents, and Superior, home to 12,000 people. Boulder is about 30 miles northwest of Denver, but the flames crept south, even threatening various suburbs of the state capital.
“This is the kind of fire we can’t fight head on,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said Thursday. “We actually had deputy sheriffs and firefighters in areas that had to pull out because they just got overrun,” he added.
Aerial footage showed large swathes of destruction throughout Boulder and the surrounding areas, though most evacuation orders outside Boulder County were lifted overnight as the fires became contained and temperatures dropped.
A cold front moved in on Friday and snow was expected to begin falling in the afternoon, hopefully extinguishing the last of the flames. But meteorologist Frank Cooper told the Denver Post that expected winds up to 15mph would hamper conditions.
“There’s just a lot of smoke and haze around this morning and that’s not going to go away,” he said, advising people with breathing problems and other health issues to stay indoors.
He said the fire “just took off. Unfortunately, it hit a very populated area.”
Multiple evacuation sites were set up for residents – mostly from upper-class neighbourhoods – including designated areas for those infected with coronavirus.
About 15,000 people remained without power on Friday. In Louisville, health authorities advised residents to boil water after the city “changed its water distribution operations so that more water is available to fight fires”.
“To do this, they had to switch to untreated water,” a release from the city and Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment said.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis on Thursday declared a state of emergency as the fires raged, allowing access to disaster funds and resources, including the use of the National Guard.
Boulder authorities were scheduled to give an update on Friday morning.