BOULDER, Colo. — About 30,000 people were ordered to flee their homes Thursday as several wind-driven wildfires burned near Denver, Colorado, blanketing the Boulder County area in smoke and setting vehicles and buildings on fire.
The National Weather Service called it a “life-threatening” situation, as gusts over 100 mph were reported in the region, fanning the flames. Some of the fires were sparked by downed power lines.
Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency Thursday afternoon to allow the state to access emergency funds and services.
On Thursday afternoon, a cloud of dark gray smoke could be seen blowing over the town of Superior, located about 20 miles northwest of Denver.
The entire town, which has about 13,000 residents, was ordered to evacuate because of a fire that spread northwest of town, according to a notice sent to residents.
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The town of Louisville, Colorado, with some 20,000 residents, was also ordered to evacuate. “If you’re in the area, please act quickly,” the Boulder Office of Emergency Management tweeted.
Six people were hospitalized with burns at UCHealth Broomfield Hospital, spokeswoman Kelli Christensen told USA TODAY. She could not elaborate on their conditions or the severity of burns due to HIPAA, a healthcare privacy law, but said all six were being treated currently.
In the Old Town area of Superior, multiple buildings and vehicles were on fire, including an Element hotel. In Louisville, at least a dozen homes appeared to be on fire in the area adjacent to the Avista Adventist Hospital.
Pat Kilbride, who has lived in the Old Town area of Superior for 30 years said his house burned down, killing his dog and cat. He said he believed many other homes were also destroyed.
Kilbride rushed toward his house when he heard the fire was approaching the area, but couldn’t get close because of road closures. By the time he arrived on foot, it was already engulfed.
“It’s all gone. The whole Old Town,” he said. “I’m going to head back to my truck and feel sorry for myself.”
By 3 pm, flames appeared to have safely bypassed the Rock Creek neighborhood and Atlee Flora, 18, grabbed a bucket to begin extinguishing small grass fires burning in the area.
“Our house was totally engulfed in smoke for a while,” he said. “I think we will be okay.”
Boulder County Office of Emergency Management has just announced an Evacuation Order for ALL of Superior, Colorado residents. Evacuation point is the South Boulder Recreation Center. The Superior Community Center is not an official evacuation location.
— Town of Superior, Colorado (@townofsuperior) December 30, 2021
Leah Angstman and her husband were sitting on a bus going toward Boulder, and 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 sky was dark, dark brown, and the dirt was blowing in swirls across the sidewalk like snakes,” she said.
“Prayers for thousands of families evacuating from the fires in Superior and Boulder County,”Polis said in a Tweet. “Fast winds are spreading flames quickly and all aircraft are grounded.”
Strong winds were helping fuel the blaze with gusts as strong as 115 mph measured earlier in the day just south of Boulder, Bruno Rodriguez, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service told USA TODAY. Constant winds were being measured around 40 mph with higher gusts throughout the region.
Rodriguez said the winds were unlike anything they’ve seen this season. Coupled with six to seven months of incredibly dry conditions, he said, it was “the worst, most terrible combination that just allowed a fast-moving fire like this.”
The region only saw about 1.6 inches of rain since August, which was “well below normal,” Rodriguez said.
As firefighters continued to battle the raging fire, the area was also placed under a winter storm warning with several inches of snow forecast overnight and into Friday. The wet snow should help douse the blaze, along with winds forecasted to slow into the evening.
“We’re going to thankfully see rapidly changing weather conditions,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been waiting for this snow for a while, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Trevor Hughes reported from Boulder.
Contributing: The Associated Press