BOULDER — A massive area north and northwest of Boulder was evacuated because of the raging Cal-Wood fire, which quickly swept down from Jamestown into the U.S. 36 corridor south of Lyons Saturday afternoon.
A large smoke plume was visible from Denver. Flames could be seen towering over Boulder.
The estimated acreage of the fire, as of Saturday night, was 7,064 acres. Division Chief Mike Wagner, with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, said multiple homes have likely been destroyed.
The evacuation order spanned both sides of U.S. 36 from Neva Road to Lyons and included Jamestown, Raymond, neighborhoods in Lefthand Canyon and areas west of Hygiene and along Colorado 7 west of Lyons. There were about 900 homes in the evacuation zone, officials said Saturday evening.
Jean and Dixon King, who have lived in Jamestown for 46 years, fled the fire, which began about 12:30 p.m. near the Cal-Wood Education Center. They were at an evacuation center in Boulder.
“We expect this,” said Jean, who recalled fleeing another blaze in 2003.
Jean uses a wheelchair and Dixon uses a walker. Yet they managed to get their car loaded with their essentials — including medication, computers, legal documents and hearing aids — before fleeing.
They also took with them a 100-year-old clock named Ethel, a picture of their daughter who passed away in 2005 and two paintings done by family members.
By the time a neighbor came over to see if they needed help, they were ready to leave.
“We’re both handicapped,” Jean said, “and we still did it.”
Joe and Melissa Sweetser’s house in the Crestview neighborhood is right on the mandatory evacuation boundary. They were packing when a police officer came through and told them to leave.
They’ve been through other fires, having lived there since 2008. But this is their first mandatory evacuation.
As they fled, it was still sunny, but they saw flames two ridges over. They and their two dogs are headed to a relative’s place in Denver for the night.
“Hopefully we’ll get back tomorrow if the weather changes,” Joe said. “Other people are in worse situations than we are.”
There haven’t been reports of homes consumed by the fire confirmed by authorities, but flames were approaching subdivisions north of Boulder. A freelance photographer working for The Sun said he witnessed several structures burn.
“We are assuming, just based on the fire behavior and the way that it moved, that there are homes or structures that are damaged or lost,” Division Chief Wagner said. “We don’t know where yet.”
Tiffany, a University of Colorado student who lives on Middle Fork Road, said she was at work when she got word from her roommate that the fire was close.
She rushed home from work to get her dog, as well as her laptop, “a stash of cash,” and some carvings her great-grandmother made. As she drove up the road, she saw flames on a nearby hill.
“It’s not looking good for our neighborhood, but time will tell,” said Tiffany, who declined to give her last name.
Carrie Haverfield, spokeswoman for the Boulder Office of Emergency Management, said the fire has crossed U.S. 36. She said more resources are headed to help fight the blaze.
Haverfield said the fire has been very fast moving and that authorities are doing everything they can to get people out of its way.
“This has been one of the biggest evacuations for livestock we’ve ever seen, even bigger than the 2013 floods,” said Gabi Boerkircher, another spokeswoman for the emergency management office.
Boerkircher said animals were being taken to both the Boulder County and Jefferson County fairgrounds.
The fire was driven by fierce winds, dry conditions and warm temperatures on Saturday. Authorities have not said what caused it to ignite, though lightning — which can cause fires to begin naturally — was not reported in the area at the time the fire began.
“It’s still too early to determine what the cause is,” Division Chief Wagner said. “We did check the lightning strike indicator. There is no indication that it was weather-related or caused by lightning.”
The Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center said the fire is “growing fast.” It was directing five large air tankers to fight the blaze on Saturday afternoon.
The smoke plume was so dramatic that people in and around Boulder flooded to vantage sites to watch it burn. A few people told The Colorado Sun they could see smoke from Interstate 70 and headed toward Boulder to investigate.
At an evacuation center set up at Iris Avenue and Broadway in Boulder, community members offering aid appeared to outnumber evacuees.
James Duncan, who’s lived in Boulder for ten years, headed to the evacuation center to see how he could help.
“It’s not too hard to look over and see the plumes,” Duncan said. “It was just a couple weeks ago that my friend and I took a drive up there. And we were just thinking how beautiful it is — and for the number of properties, how vulnerable they are. My heart goes out to the people having this is as the traumatic day that changes their lives.”
Boulder County Emergency Management, however, was asking people to stay away.
“Please do NOT show up to spontaneously volunteer or donate supplies at any areas,” the agency said on Twitter, “particularly at the evacuation point in Boulder. We need to maintain space and order at the location for the families who have evacuated.”
The Colorado Department of Transportation was also asking motorists to stay away from Boulder and Larimer counties as to keep roads open for emergency responders.
Colorado has been enduring several months of wildfires. The Cameron Peak fire, west of Fort Collins, continues to rage. This week, it became the largest recorded wildfire in state history. By Saturday evening, the blaze had grown to nearly 200,000 acres.
Over the summer, wildfires on the Western Slope scorched hundreds of thousands of acres.
On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor announced that all of Colorado is under drought status for the first time since 2013.
Updated at 12:32 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020: This story has been updated to correct Mike Wagner’s title. He is a division chief with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office.