DENVER (NewsNation Now) — An estimated 580 homes, a hotel and a shopping center have burned and tens of thousands of people have been evacuated in wind-fueled wildfires outside Denver, officials said Thursday evening.
“We might have our very own new years’ miracle on our hands if it holds up that there was no loss of life. We know that many people had just minutes to evacuate and if that was successfully pulled off by all of the affected families — that’s really quite a testimony to preparedness and emergency response,” Gov. Jared Polis said at a news conference Friday.
At least one first responder and six others were injured, and 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.
The first fire erupted just before 10:30 a.m. and was “attacked pretty quickly and laid down later in the day and is currently being monitored” with no structures lost, Pelle said.
A second wildfire, reported just after 11 a.m., “ballooned and spread rapidly east,” Pelle said. The blaze spans 2.5 square mile and has engulfed parts of the area in smoky, orange-hued skies and sent residents scrambling to get to safety.
The activity of the fires, which are burning unusually late into the winter season, will depend on how the winds behave overnight and could determine when crews are able to go in and begin assessing the damage and searching for any victims.
“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,” he added.
The neighboring towns of Louisville and Superior, situated about 20 miles northwest of Denver and home to a combined 34,000 people, were ordered evacuated ahead of the fires.
Several blazes started in the area Thursday, at least some sparked by downed power lines.
Six people who were injured in the fires were being treated at UCHealth Broomfield Hospital, spokesperson Kelli Christensen said. A nearby portion of U.S. Highway 36 also was shut down.
Colorado’s Front Range, where most of the state’s population lives, had an extremely dry and mild fall, and winter so far has continued to be mostly dry. Snow was expected Friday in the region, though.
One video captured by a bystander outside a Superior Costco store showed an apocalyptic scene with winds whipping through barren trees in the parking lot surrounded by gray skies, a hazy sun and small fires scattered across the ground.
Leah Angstman and her husband saw similar dark skies while returning to their Louisville home from Denver International Airport after being away for the holidays. As they were sitting on a bus going toward Boulder, Angstman recalled instantly leaving clear blue skies and entering clouds of brown and yellow smoke.
“The wind rocked the bus so hard that I thought the bus would tip,” she wrote in a message to The Associated Press.
The visibility was so poor that the bus had to pull over and they waited a half hour until a regional transit authority van escorted them to a turnaround on the highway. There she saw four separate fires burning in bushes across the freeway, she said.
“The sky was dark, dark brown, and the dirt was blowing in swirls across the sidewalk like snakes,” she said.
Angstman later ended up evacuating, getting in a car with her husband and driving northeast without knowing where they would end up.
Vignesh Kasinath, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado in Boulder, evacuated from a neighborhood in Superior with his wife and her parents. Kasinath said the family was overwhelmed because of the sudden evacuation warning and anxious from the chaos while trying to leave.
“It’s only because I am active on Twitter I came to know about this,” said Kasinath, who added that he did not receive an official evacuation notice from authorities.
Rebecca Schwager, of Louisville, who also evacuated due to the wildfires, never thought she would be in this position.
“I looked around the house for about 30 minutes and thought about what to take. I never thought I would be in that situation,” she said.
Schwager has been glued to her home security system’s app since evacuating.
“I am watching our Ring front door very closely. I just got an update from a neighbor who has captured flames behind their complex. It’s all roll on one complex. So yeah, it’s not looking really great right now. I know that friends nearby, their houses have most likely been compromised,” she said.
The fires prompted Gov. Jared Polis to declare a state of a emergency, allowing the state to access disaster emergency funds.
The evacuations come as climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, scientists say. A historic drought and heat waves have made wildfires harder to fight in the U.S. West.
Patty Nieberg, Brady McCombs and Colleen Slevin of the Associated Press contributed to this report.