At least 500 homes were likely destroyed and there were no known deaths in a wind-fueled wildfire outside Denver, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said Friday.
Tens of thousands of Coloradans were driven from their neighborhoods by wind-whipped wildfires. They were anxiously waiting to learn what's left standing of their lives after the flames burned homes, a hotel and a shopping center.
Pelle described one of the communities lost to the fire as "just smoking holes in the ground." He said there have been no reports of missing people so far.
"It's unbelievable when you look at the devastation that we don't have a list of 100 missing persons," Pelle said.
The fires erupted Thursday outside Denver, following an extremely dry fall and a winter so far nearly devoid of snow.
At least one first responder and six other people have been injured, and the sheriff says there could be more hurt.
"We might have our very own new years' miracle on our hands if it holds up that there was no loss of life. We know that many people had just minutes to evacuate and if that was successfully pulled off by all of the affected families — that's really quite a testimony to preparedness and emergency response," Gov. Jared Polis said at a news conference Friday.
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 105 mph.
"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."
Mike Guanella and his family were relaxing at their home in the town of Superior and looking forward to celebrating a belated Christmas later in when reports of a nearby grass fire quickly gave way to an order to leave immediately.
Instead of opening presents, Guanella and his wife, their three children and three dogs were staying 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.
By first light Friday, the towering flames that lit up the night sky were gone, leaving smoldering homes and charred trees and fields. The winds died down, and light snow soon began falling, raising hopes it could snuff out hot spots.
Sophia Verucchi and her partner, Tony Victor, returned to their apartment in Broomfield, on the edge of Superior, to find it was spared any serious damage. They fled the previous afternoon with just Victor's guitar, bedding and their cat, Senor Gato Blanco.
"We left thinking it was a joke. We just felt like we were going to come back. At 5 o'clock, we thought, maybe we're not coming back," Verucchi said. But they got an email in the morning saying it was OK to return.
"Seeing the news and seeing all the houses burnt, we just feel very lucky," Verucchi said.
The neighboring towns of Louisville and Superior, situated about 20 miles northwest of Denver and home to a combined 34,000 people, were ordered evacuated ahead of the fires, which cast a smoky, orange haze over the landscape.
The two towns are filled with middle- and upper-middle-class subdivisions with shopping centers, parks and schools. The area is between Denver and Boulder, home to the University of Colorado.
Residents evacuated fairly calmly and in orderly fashion, but the winding streets quickly became clogged. It sometimes took cars as long as 45 minutes to advance a half-mile.
Small fires cropped up here and there in surprising places — on the grass in a median or in a dumpster in the middle of a parking lot — as gusts caused the flames to jump. Shifting winds caused the skies to turn from clear to smoky and then back again as sirens wailed.
Leah Angstman and her husband were returning to their Louisville home from Denver International Airport after being away for the holidays. They recounted leaving clear blue skies and instantly entering clouds of brown and yellow smoke.
"The wind rocked the bus so hard that I thought the bus would tip," she said.
The visibility was so poor the bus pulled over. They waited a half-hour until a transit authority van escorted the bus to a turnaround on the highway.
"The sky was dark, dark brown, and the dirt was blowing in swirls across the sidewalk like snakes," she said.
Vignesh Kasinath, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado, evacuated from a neighborhood in Superior with his wife and her parents.
"It's only because I am active on Twitter I came to know about this," said Kasinath, who said he did not receive an evacuation notice from authorities.
The first fire erupted just before 10:30 a.m. and was "attacked pretty quickly and laid down later in the day" with no structures lost, the sheriff said. A second blaze, reported just after 11 a.m., ballooned and spread rapidly, Pelle said. It covered at least 2.5 square miles.
Some of the several blazes in the area were sparked by downed power lines, authorities 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, and winter has been mostly dry so far. Denver set a record for consecutive days without snow before it got a small storm on Dec. 10, its last snowfall before the wildfires broke out.
Ninety percent of Boulder County is in severe or extreme drought, and it hasn't seen substantial rainfall since mid-summer.
"With any snow on the ground, this absolutely would not have happened in the way that it did," said snow hydrologist Keith Musselman.
Guanella said he heard from a firefighter friend that his home was still standing Thursday night. But he could only wait and see.
"You're just waiting to hear if your favorite restaurant is still standing, if the schools that your kids go to are still standing," he said. "You're just waiting to get some clarity."
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this story from Salt Lake City.
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