Nearly 1,000 homes have been destroyed in wind-driven wildfires in the US state of Colorado, as officials said it was a “miracle” that no casualties had been reported so far as a result of the devastating blazes.
“It was a disaster in fast-motion over half a day,” Governor Jared Polis said during a news briefing on Friday. “Many families had minutes to get whatever they could, their pets and kids into the car, and leave. It’s unimaginable.”
Polis said he spoke on Friday with US President Joe Biden, who has approved an expedited major disaster declaration for the region, allowing residents and businesses to access support more easily.
“We might have our very own New Year’s miracle on our hands, if it holds up that there was no loss of life,” Polis said.
The wildfires injured at least a half dozen people and prompted the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents in and around two towns east of the Rocky Mountains near Denver, the state capital, on Thursday.
“It’s unbelievable when you look at the devastation that we don’t have a list of 100 missing persons,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said on Friday.
Two of the communities hit hardest by the fires, Louisville and Superior, have been placed under boil-water advisories due to contamination fears, Pelle added.
The two towns – located in an area between Denver and Boulder – are filled with middle- and upper-middle-class subdivisions, as well as shopping centres, parks and schools.
The origin of the wildfires has not been confirmed, but officials said during Friday’s press briefing that it was suspected to be related to power lines.
Pelle, who gave the early damage estimate, said there could be more injuries – and also deaths – because of the ferocity of the fire, propelled by winds up to 169km per hour (105 miles per hour)
“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.”
The fire burned 24.3 square kilometres (9.4 square miles), Pelle said. By first light on Friday, the towering flames that lit up the night sky were gone, leaving smouldering homes and charred trees and fields.
Officials said on Friday that winds had died down and snow was arriving, and that they did not expect the fire to pose any more danger.
“Fortunately, snowfall will help bring an end to the fires, and recovery efforts can get underway,” the White House said in a statement detailing Biden’s call with Polis, the state governor, on Friday morning. “The President is grateful to all of the first responders who have come to the aid of Colorado communities and families impacted by the fires.”
Mike Guanella and his family were relaxing at their home in the town of Superior and looking forward to celebrating a belated Christmas when reports of a nearby grass fire quickly gave way to an order to leave immediately.
Instead of opening presents, Guanella, his wife, their three children and three dogs were staying at a friend’s house in Denver, hoping their house was still standing. “Those presents are still under the tree right now – we hope,” he said.
Scientists say climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Colorado’s Front Range, where most of the state’s population lives, had an extremely dry and mild fall, while winter has been mostly dry so far. Denver set a record for consecutive days without snow before it got a small storm on December 10, its last snowfall before the wildfires broke out.
Jennifer Balch, director of the Earth Lab at Colorado University whose research focuses on fire ecology, lives just a few miles from the fire zone and said the blaze was shocking for many reasons. She headed out on a walk Friday morning, attempting to get a better vantage point to see the fire’s damage.
“I was smelling smoke, and there’s snowflakes hitting my cheeks. ‘Winter wildfires’ should be an oxymoron, we should not be dealing with wildfires at the end of December,” she said.
Ninety percent of Boulder County is in severe or extreme drought, and it has not seen substantial rainfall since mid-summer.
“Cities in Colorado are overrun with wildfire and hundred mile-per-hour winds,” Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said on Twitter on Friday. “Anyone who denies that we are in the midst of a large-scale climate crisis is not living in reality.”
Officials in Colorado say they are still assessing the extent of the damage and working to provide temporary housing to displaced residents. Rebuilding the burned-out communities will not be easy, said the governor, thanking rescue workers, volunteers and first responders for their work so far.
It was nearly 70° in Alaska just a few days ago.
Cities in Colorado are overrun with wildfire and hundred mile-per-hour winds.
Anyone who denies that we are in the midst of a large-scale climate crisis is not living in reality.
We need bold climate action and we need it now.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 31, 2021