A Colorado official says nearly 1,000 homes were destroyed, hundreds more were damaged, and that three people are missing after wildfires charred numerous neighborhoods in a suburban area at the base of the Rocky Mountains northwest of Denver.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle also said Saturday that investigators have yet to determine the cause of the blazes that erupted Thursday.
Officials had previously estimated that at least 500 homes — and possibly 1,000 — were destroyed. They also announced earlier Saturday that two people were missing.
The wind-whipped wildfires blackened entire neighborhoods in the area between Denver and Boulder.
Authorities had said earlier no one was missing. But Boulder County spokeswoman Jennifer Churchill said Saturday that was the result of confusion inherent when agencies are scrambling to manage an emergency.
Pelle said officials were organizing cadaver teams to search for the missing in the Superior area and in unincorporated Boulder County. The task is complicated by debris from destroyed structures, covered by 20 centimeters (8 inches) of snow dumped by a storm overnight, he said.
At least 991 homes were destroyed, Pelle said: 553 in Louisville, 332 in Superior and 106 in unincorporated parts of the county. Hundreds more were damaged. Pelle cautioned that the tally is not final.
The cause of the fires was under investigation. Pelle said utility officials found no downed power lines around where the fires broke out. He said authorities were pursuing a number of tips and had executed a search warrant at “one particular location.” He declined to give details.
At least seven people were injured in the wildfire that erupted in and around Louisville and Superior, neighboring towns about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Denver with a combined population of 34,000. More than 500 homes were feared destroyed.
The blaze, which burned at least 9.4 square miles (24 square kilometers), was no longer considered an immediate threat, especially after an overnight dumping of snow and frigid temperatures Saturday. The bitter cold compounded the misery of Colorado residents who started off the new year trying to salvage what remains of their homes.
About 20 centimeters (8 inches) of snow and temperatures in the single digits cast an eerie scene amid still-smoldering remains of homes. Despite the shocking change in weather, the smell of smoke permeated empty streets blocked off by National Guard troops in Humvees.
Utility crews worked to restore electricity and gas service to homes that survived, and Xcel Energy urged other residents to use fireplaces and wood stoves to stay warm and keep their pipes at home from freezing.
Families filled a long line of cars waiting to pick up space heaters and bottled water at a Salvation Army distribution center at the YMCA in Lafayette, just north of Superior.
Monarch High School seniors Noah Sarasin and his twin brother, Gavin, had been volunteering at that location for two days, directing traffic and distributing donations.
“We have a house, no heat but we still have a house,” Noah Sarasin said. “I just want to make sure that everyone else has heat on this very cold day.”
Hilary and Patrick Wallace picked up two heaters, then ordered two mochas at a nearby coffee shop. The Superior couple couldn’t find a hotel and were contemplating hiking 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) back to their home; their neighborhood was still blocked off to traffic. The family slept in one room on New Year’s Eve.
Both teared up when a man entered the shop and joked aloud that he’d lost his coffee mugs — and everything else — in the fire. The man was in good spirits, laughing at the irony of the situation.
“I have a space heater and a house to put it in. I don’t even know what to say to them,” Hilary said, wiping away a tear.
Superior resident Jeff Markley arrived in his truck to pick up a heater. He said he felt lucky to be “just displaced” since his home is intact.
“We’re making do, staying with friends, and upbeat for the new year. Gotta be better than this last one,” Markley said.
Not everyone felt as positive.
“It’s bittersweet because we have our house, but our friends don’t. And our neighbors don’t,” said Louisville resident Judy Givens as she picked up a heater with her husband, Rusty. “We thought 2022 might be better. And then we had omicron. And now we have this, and it’s not starting out very well.”
The wildfire broke out unusually late in the year, following an extremely dry fall and amid a winter nearly devoid of snow until the overnight snowfall. 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 hadn’t seen substantial rainfall since midsummer. Denver set a record for consecutive days without snow before it got a small storm on December 10, its last snowfall before the wildfires broke out.