DENVER — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said Friday it was a “New Year’s miracle” that no fatalities have been reported from the destructive, fast-moving fire that ripped through heavily populated neighborhoods and retail areas in Boulder County.
“We might have our very own New Year’s miracle on hand if it holds up that there was no loss of life,” Mr. Polis said at a press conference in Boulder. “We know that many people had just minutes to evacuate.”
As many as 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed in a matter of hours Thursday in the Marshall and Middle Fork fires, fueled by dry conditions and winds of up to 105 mph that pushed the flames over highways and into the suburbs of Superior, Louisville and Broomfield.
A few small blazes continued to burn in neighborhoods and fields, but the lingering flames were expected to be extinguished by the snow that arrived Friday morning, a day too late to squelch what was described as the most destructive fire in state history, based on the number of structures lost.
“We were fortunate that the winds dissipated last night,” said Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle. “We’re expecting snow today. That snow has already started. We’re hoping to see 3-6 inches of snow and some good moisture. That’s certainly going to help our efforts.”
He said the cause of the fire is under investigation, but it appears to have been sparked by downed power lines.
Tens of thousands of residents were rapidly evacuated Thursday. Shoppers were shown on video rushing out of Target, Costco and Chuck E. Cheese into hazy parking lots, a testament to how quickly the grassland fire charged into the suburban communities.
“The last 24 hours have been devastating. It’s really unimaginable. It’s hard to speak about,” said the Democratic governor, whose home is in Boulder County.
Mr. Polis, who viewed the burn area by helicopter early Friday with Sheriff Pelle and others, said the fire leaped in a mosaic pattern, leveling some houses and leaving others unscathed in the same subdivisions as a result of wind patterns and topography.
“It would spread to a house here and there over other houses, past other streets — a very unusual burn pattern,” he said. “The other unusual factor is this was just in the blink of an eye. This was a disaster in fast motion all over the course of a half a day, nearly all the damage, many families having minutes, minutes to get whatever they could, their pets, their kids, into the car and leave.”
Despite the enormous damage, the Marshall Fire consumed only 6,000 acres, less than half that of the 2013 Black Forest Fire, the Colorado Springs blaze that until Thursday was listed as the state’s most destructive fire.
Those fires were far smaller than the three massive 2020 wildfires that consumed nearly 600,000 acres among them in the sparsely populated mountains and forests. Those wildfires were the three largest in Colorado history.
“To put things in perspective, those three largest wildfires combined, while over 600,000 acres, each one over 200,000 acres, still destroyed less homes and less businesses than this fire of 6,000 acres because this was fundamentally an urban and suburban fire,” Mr. Polis said.
Mr. Polis said President Biden agreed Friday on a phone call to approve an expedited emergency disaster declaration for the region and sent his regards to those affected.
“Fortunately, snowfall will help bring an end to the fires, and recovery efforts can get underway,” said the White House readout. “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.”
Sheriff Pelle said about 2,000 houses are in the burn area but added that “we certainly did not lose 2,000 homes.”
“We did see entire subdivisions as I talked about last night, the west side of Superior, old town Superior, that are totally gone. That accounts easily for 500 homes,” Sheriff Pelle said. “West of Superior, toward Marshall, dozens of burnout homes. South side of Louisville suffered some pretty catastrophic losses as well, dozens of homes.”
He said only one missing person was reported, and that person has been found alive and well.
“That’s awesome news and actually I think given the events that we had yesterday, pretty miraculous,” Sheriff Pelle said.