Colorado wildfire victims return to devastated neighbourhoods to survey damage
Hundreds of Colorado residents who had expected to ring in 2022 in their homes are instead starting off the new year trying to salvage what remains of them after a wind-whipped wildfire tore through the suburbs of Denver.
Families forced to flee the flames with little warning returned to their neighbourhoods on Friday to find a patchwork of devastation. In some streets, homes reduced to smoking ruins stood next to others practically unscathed by the fires.
Resident Eric House said: “For 35 years I walked out my front door, I saw beautiful homes. Now when I walk out, my home’s standing. I walk out my front door and this is what I see.”
At least seven people were injured, but remarkably there have been no reports of any deaths or anyone missing in the wildfire that erupted on Thursday in and around Louisville and Superior, neighbouring towns about 20 miles (32km) north-west of Denver with a combined population of 34,000.
More than 500 homes are feared to have been destroyed and now home-owners face the difficult task of rebuilding amid a global shortage of supplies brought on by the two-year pandemic.
“In the way the economy is right now, how long is it gonna take to build all these houses back?” asked Brian O’Neill, who owns a home in Louisville that burned to the ground.
Cathy Glaab found that her home in Superior had been turned into a pile of charred and twisted debris. It was one of seven houses in a row that were destroyed.
“The mailbox is standing,” she said, trying to crack a smile through tears, adding sadly: “So many memories.”
Despite the devastation, Ms Glaab said she and her husband intend to rebuild the house they have had since 1998, which has a view of the mountains from the back.
Rick Dixon feared there would be nothing to return to after he saw firefighters try to save his burning home on the news. On Friday, Mr Dixon, his wife and son found it mostly gutted with a gaping hole in the roof but still standing.
“We thought we lost everything,” he said, as he held his mother-in-law’s china in padded containers. They also retrieved sculptures that belonged to Mr Dixon’s father and piles of clothes still on hangers.
As the flames swept over drought-stricken neighbourhoods with alarming speed, propelled by gusts up to 105mph (169kph), tens of thousands of people were ordered to flee.
The cause of the blaze is under investigation. Emergency authorities said utility officials found no downed power lines around where the fire broke out.
With some roads still closed on Friday, people walked back to their homes to get clothes or medicine, turn the water off to prevent the pipes from freezing, or see if they still had a house. They left carrying backpacks and pulling suitcases.
David Marks stood on a hillside overlooking Superior with others, using binoculars and a long-range camera lens to see if his house, and those of his neighbours, were still there, but he could not ascertain whether his place was OK. He said at least three friends lost their homes.
He had watched from the hillside as the area burned.
“By the time I got up here, the houses were completely engulfed,” he said. “I mean, it happened so quickly. I’ve never seen anything like that … Just house after house, fences, just stuff flying through the air, just caught on fire.”
By first light on Friday, the towering flames that had lit up the night sky had subsided and the winds had died down. Light snow began to fall, and the blaze, which burned at least 9.4 square miles (24 sq km), was no longer considered an immediate threat.
“We might have our very own New Year’s miracle on our hands if it holds up that there was no loss of life,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis, noting that many people had just minutes to evacuate.
President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in the area, ordering federal aid be made available to those affected.
The wildfire broke out unusually late in the year, following an extremely dry autumn and amid a winter nearly devoid of snow so far.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said more than 500 homes had been destroyed, and as many as 1,000 properties might have been lost, although that will not be known until crews can assess the damage.
“It’s unbelievable when you look at the devastation that we don’t have a list of 100 missing persons,” the sheriff said.
Mr Pelle said some communities have been reduced to just “smoking holes in the ground”, and urged residents to wait for the all-clear before going back because of the danger of fire and fallen power lines.
Superior and Louisville are filled with middle- and upper middle-class subdivisions, with shopping centres, parks and schools. The area is between Denver and Boulder, home to the University of Colorado.
Scientists say climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Ninety percent of Boulder County is in severe or extreme drought, and it has not seen substantial rain since mid-summer. Denver set a record for consecutive days without snow before a small storm on December 10, its last snowfall before the wildfires broke out.
Bruce Janda faced the loss of his Louisville home of 25 years in person on Friday.
“We knew that the house was totalled, but I felt the need to see it, see what the rest of the neighbourhood looked like,” he said.
“We’re a very close-knit community on this street. We all know each other and we all love each other. It’s hard to see this happen to all of us.”
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