Aerial videos show devastation across Colorado as fire declared most destructive in history

Historic fires burned thousands of acres, destroying hundreds of homes in Colorado after drought and high winds

Sheila Flynn
in Denver
Friday 31 December 2021 17:21
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Homes engulfed in flames and winds blow wildfire across Colorado

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 most devastating 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. That number could rise to 1,000, officials said at a press conference Friday morning, in addition to business destruction - but hospitals and schools seemed mostly spared.

Several fires broke out the previous day, 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.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle held a joint press conference Friday with Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who said the devastation had unfolded in “the blink of an eye.”

“This was a disaster in fast motion - all over the course of half a day ... many families having minutes, minutes, to get whatever they could - their pets, their kids - into the car and leave. The last 24 hours have been devastating.

“It’s really unimaginable. It’s hard to speak about.”

Authorities said Friday that there were no reports of dead or missing.

“It feels like we’ve experienced enough loss and tragedy over these past two years,” Gov. Polis said Friday. “And then yesterday happened.”

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.

Gov. 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. He said on Friday that he’d spoken with President Joe Biden, who would expedite the availability of more resources.

“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.

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 and Superior, health authorities advised residents to boil water after the cities changed water distribution operations so that more water was available to fight fires.

“To do this, they had to switch to untreated water,” a release from the city of Louisville and Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment said.

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