Wildfires burn hundreds of homes in Colorado, thousands flee

“That’s the kind of fire we can’t fight directly,” said Pelle. “We actually had deputy sheriffs and firefighters in areas that had to leave because they were being overrun.”

Mike Guanella and his family relaxed at their home in the town of Superior, looking forward to a late Christmas celebration later that day when reports of a nearby grass fire quickly gave way to instructions to leave immediately.

Instead of opening presents, Guanella and his wife, their three children, and three dogs were staying with a friend in Denver, hoping their house was still standing.

“These presents are just under the tree – we hope,” he said.

As night fell, officials monitored the behavior of the wind and flames to determine when crews could safely enter to assess the damage and search for victims.

About an inch of snow was forecast for the region on Friday, raising hopes that this could help quell the flames.

The neighboring cities of Louisville and Superior, about 20 miles northwest of Denver and home to a combined population of 34,000, were evacuated from the flames that cast a smoky, orange haze over the landscape and lit the night sky.

The two cities are characterized by middle and upper class districts with shopping centers, parks and schools. The area is between Denver and Boulder, home of the University of Colorado.

The residents evacuated relatively calmly and orderly, but the winding streets were quickly clogged. Cars sometimes took up to 45 minutes to travel half a mile.

In surprising places, small fires broke out here and there – on the grass in a median or in a dumpster in the middle of a parking lot – as gusts made the flames leap. Shifting winds turned the sky from clear to smoky and then back again as sirens wailed.

Leah Angstman and her husband returned to their Louisville home after their absence from Denver International Airport. They said that they left the clear blue sky and immediately entered clouds of brown and yellow smoke.

“The wind shook the bus so hard I thought the bus was going to tip over,” she said.

The view was so bad that the bus had to stop. They waited half an hour for a transport authority delivery truck to escort the bus to a turning point on the freeway.

“The sky was dark, dark brown, and the dirt was blowing like snakes across the sidewalk,” she said.

Vignesh Kasinath, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado, was evacuated from a neighborhood in Superior with his wife and parents.

“I only found out about it because I was active on Twitter,” said Kasinath, who said he had not received an evacuation notice from the authorities.

The first fire broke out shortly before 10:30 am and was “attacked fairly quickly and put down later that day,” with no structure lost, the sheriff said. A second fire, reported just after 11 a.m., rose and spread quickly, Pelle said. It covered at least 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers).

Some of the multiple fires in the area were ignited by fallen power lines, authorities said.

Scientists say climate change is making weather more extreme and forest fires more common and more destructive.

The Colorado Front Range, home to most of the state’s population, had an extremely dry and mild fall, and winter so far has been mostly dry. Denver has set a record for consecutive days without snow before a small storm hit on December 10th, the last snowfall before the wildfires broke out.

Ninety percent of Boulder County has been hit by severe or extreme drought, and there has been no significant rainfall since midsummer.

“If there was snow on the ground, it would not have happened that way,” says snow hydrologist Keith Musselman.

Guanella said he heard from a firefighter friend that his house was still standing Thursday night. But he could only wait and see.

“You’re just waiting to hear whether your favorite restaurant is still open, whether the schools your children go to are still open,” he said. “You’re just waiting to get clarity.”

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