Tens of Thousands Flee as Colorado Wildfires Burn at Least 500 Homes

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The authorities are urging tens of thousands of people across parts of Boulder County, Colo., to leave as quickly as possible as the grassfires continue to burn.CreditCredit…Trevor Hughes/USA Today Network via Reuters

Fast-moving wildfires fanned by powerful winds swept across parts of Boulder County, Colo., on Thursday, prompting the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and burning at least 500 homes, a shopping complex and a hotel, the authorities said.

The Boulder County Office of Emergency Management announced evacuation orders for Superior and Louisville, urging residents to leave quickly, as the sky turned orange, ash swirled in the wind, and buildings were engulfed in flames. Residents in parts of Broomfield, Colo., were also ordered to evacuate.

Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency in response to the grass fires, allowing the state to tap emergency funds and to deploy state resources, including the Colorado National Guard.

He said wind gusts of up to 110 miles per hour had pushed the fires with astonishing speed across suburban neighborhoods. More than 1,600 acres had burned since the fires started on Thursday morning, officials said.

“This fire is, frankly, a force of nature,” Mr. Polis said at a news conference. “For those who have lost everything that they’ve had, know that we will be there for you to help rebuild your lives.”

Sheriff Joe Pelle of Boulder County described the fires as a “horrific event.” He said he believed that both fires were caused by downed power lines, and said he would not be surprised if there were deaths or injuries, although only one minor injury had been reported so far: a police officer who got debris in his eye.

Boulder County Office of Emergency Management has just announced an Evacuation Order for ALL of Superior, Colorado residents. Evacuation point is the South Boulder Recreation Center. The Superior Community Center is not an official evacuation location.

— Town of Superior, Colorado (@townofsuperior) December 30, 2021

All three of the communities under evacuation orders are southeast of Boulder. Louisville has about 21,200 residents. Superior has about 13,000 residents, and Broomfield has about 74,000 residents.

Emily Hogan, a spokeswoman for Louisville, said officials had ordered an evacuation for all but two parts of the city. Traffic was heavy, she said, as residents fled.

“It’s really smoky, and there are some areas where it’s been hard to breathe outside, and you can see flames depending on where you’re at in the city,” she said. “The situation is continuing to evolve rapidly and we want everyone to be prepared to take action, if needed.”

Avista Adventist Hospital, a 114-bed hospital in Louisville, said it had evacuated its neonatal intensive care and intensive care units as well as its emergency department, moving patients to two other hospitals. The hospital’s staff members were sheltering in place and nearby roads were closed, the hospital said.

The Louisville Police Department told residents to evacuate east or north.

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Authorities have announced an evacuation order for parts of Boulder County, Colo., urging residents to leave quickly.CreditCredit…Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

While the threat of wildfires looms as a constant threat over Western mountain towns and homes tucked into the woods, people who fled the smoke and flying embers on Thursday were astonished at how the fast-moving blazes had raged through their suburban neighborhoods.

“When does this happen in such a suburban area?” asked Alli Bowdey, a nurse who left her home in the Boulder suburb of Louisville and packed into a friend’s house with other evacuated family members. “We grew up with friends losing their homes in the mountains. What happens here? Nothing.”

But wildfires in the American West have been worsening — growing larger, spreading faster and reaching into mountainous elevations that were once too wet and cool to have supported fierce fires. What was once a seasonal phenomenon has become a year-round menace, with fires burning later into the fall and into the winter.

Recent research has suggested that heat and dryness associated with global warming are major reasons for the increase in bigger and stronger fires, as rainfall patterns have been disrupted, snow melts earlier and meadows and forests are scorched into kindling.

Colorado had the three largest wildfires in its history in the summer of 2020, each one burning more than 200,000 acres, Gov. Jared Polis said. But those fires burned federally owned forests and land, he said, while the fires on Thursday destroyed suburban subdevelopments and shopping plazas.

“As a millennial, I’m just looking outside and I’m seeing climate change,” said Angelica Kalika, 36, of Broomfield. “I’m seeing my future. I grew up in Colorado, and this is a place where I’ve had snowy Christmases and a nice 60-degree summer. But, for me, this is a moment of deep reckoning of climate change when there is a wildfire outside my door.”

Across the Boulder area, displaced neighbors pored over the news for updates on whether their homes had survived and compared notes on businesses where they had seen fires scorching parking lots and approaching buildings. A city recreation center. A Chuck E. Cheese. A grocery store.

Normally, businesses like these, surrounded by asphalt and concrete, are protected from wildfires. But weeks of warm, dry weather that stretched from the autumn through December turned communities across the plains of Colorado into a wintertime tinderbox, and the frenzied winds on Thursday created a firestorm that left few places safe.

“It’s popping up all over the place,” Ms. Bowdey said. “These embers are flying all over the place. It’s a shock to everybody. Nobody wakes up planning for this.”

At about 5:30 p.m., she said she got an update from a neighbor. The fire was now two blocks away from their home.

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Tens of thousands of residents of two communities in Boulder County, Colo., were ordered to evacuate because of wildfires driven by strong winds.CreditCredit…David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Ruthie Werner, 45, an artist and designer who lives in Louisville, Colo., had been quarantining with her family after her husband contracted Covid-19.

But on Thursday, after she and her son and daughter tested negative, they decided to drive to Target to do some Christmas returns and shake off their cabin fever.

When they got there, the parking lot was in flames. Smoke was staining the air, and every small patch of grass or vegetation Ms. Werner could see was ablaze.

“It felt like the apocalypse,” Ms. Werner said.

They drove back home and quickly decided to pack up even before the mandatory evacuations came down. Her children grabbed a few Christmas gifts, and her daughter grabbed a painting of their old family dog. And they bolted for a hotel as far from the smoke and flames as they could.

“We just wanted to get out of the smoke,” Ms. Werner said. “We couldn’t breathe. Our eyes were watering. My daughter kept saying her eyes were hurting.”

They and neighbors were checking in on their homes remotely through doorbell cameras, and Ms. Werner said her family’s house still appeared to be standing on Thursday evening. But other neighbors had watched through security cameras as flames swallowed up their houses.

“If the wind could just stop,” she said from the airport hotel room where she and her family is spending the night.

But the images of billowing smoke on the television suggested it still was not slowing down.

For shoppers in nearby Superior, a Costco run also turned into an evacuation as flames came dangerously close to the store around noon on Thursday.

Robert Gutierrez, 20, had seen smoke billowing on his way to the Costco, but the fire had not reached the store yet, he said. However, five minutes into his shopping trip, the shoppers were asked to evacuate.

He could barely see through the smoke as he drove away, he said, when a truck driver coming in the opposite direction gestured at him to turn around. As he did, a trail of flames tore through the road just in front of his car and reached his windshield.

“Thankfully, I exited out,” he said.

Alyssa Lukpat contributed reporting.