As Chaffee County knows well, high winds, dry terrain, and wild fires don’t mix. This afternoon Governor Jared Polis declared a State of Emergency due to multiple Boulder County grass fires that spread across the northwestern suburbs driven by wind gusts that in many areas topped 100 MPH.
Thousands of families were forced to flee with as little as 20 minutes’ notice, as reverse 9-11 calls were issued to “leave now”. The National Weather Service declared it a “life-threatening” situation. Gusts topping 110 MPH were recorded.
The fires may have been sparked by power lines downed by the fierce winds. The Middle Fork fire started about 10:30 a.m. this morning, and was laid down quickly and is being monitored. The Marshall Fire began just after 11:00 a.m. and grew rapidly, spreading through Superior and Louisville; huge black clouds of smoke billowed above the scene and subdivisions began to burn. It grew from nothing to more than 1,600 acres in only a few hours.
As the winds roared, the Boulder area firefighters could not get firefighting equipment into the air due to the high winds; a rapidly shifting pattern of winds coming off the mountains from the west met shifting high winds from the southeast making the fire jump unpredictably and preventing firm fire lines from being established. As the wildfires grew, more of them hopscotched through neighborhoods with fire crews unable to stop the flames.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle reports that at least 580 homes (210 of them in the historic Old Town Superior) have been destroyed. The sheriff confirmed that all 370 homes in the Sagamore subdivision of Louisville also burned. This makes it the most destructive in Colorado history, exceeding the Black Forest Fire in which 511 homes burned. Also lost; a new Element hotel, and a Target shopping complex.
9News provided this YouTube video of the fires just before 5:00 p.m. this afternoon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JndFo6bG6k
The towns of Superior (13,000 residents) and Lafayette (20,000 residents) have been evacuated, and pre-evacuation notices surround those areas. The Centura-Avista Adventist Hospital just northwest of Broomfield evacuated its patients, sending them to sister hospitals. Flatirons Mall was closed. U.S. 36 has been shut down from Interlocken to Boulder as the area is under one of the pre-evacuation orders.
The governor’s disaster declaration allows the state to access disaster emergency funds to support the emergency response efforts in Boulder and provide state resources including the use of the Colorado National Guard, Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, and activation of the State Emergency Operations Center.
While the high country has been receiving snow for the past several days (a welcome development for the state’s ski resorts) the Front Range has been starved for moisture for months. Combined with hurricane-force winds, it has left the metro Denver Front Range vulnerable to the kind of wildfires that mountain communities know and have come to dread.
For official updates on the Boulder Fire, follow Boulder Office of Emergency Management on Twitter at www.twitter.com/boulderoem or bookmark their website at https://www.boulderoem.com/emergency-status/.
Sign up now for emergency alerts. To find a list of emergency alert links visit https://dhsem.colorado.gov/emergencyalert
Featured image: the Marshall Fire swallows the brand new Elements Hotel. Photo by The Coloradan.