BOULDER COUNTY — A wildfire fanned by winds gusting up to 110 mph burned at least 600 homes and businesses in neighborhoods in Superior and Louisville east of Boulder on Thursday.
Tens of thousands of people in the fire’s path were forced to make a chaotic evacuation in a matter of minutes. Some were rushed out of big-box stores and into parking lots surrounded by burning landscaping. Others escaped with their lives on smoke-choked roads clogged with fleeing vehicles.
At least six people were treated for burns.
“This was consuming football-field lengths of land in seconds,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said at a news conference during which he choked back tears. “We had never seen anything like it. This was a horrific event.”
He added: “There was a lot of brave stuff going on out there today.”
If the damage is confirmed, the Marshall fire will be the most destructive in Colorado history in terms of the number of homes lost. It had burned an estimated 1,600 acres as of Thursday evening.
Pelle said that 370 homes were lost in the Sagamore neighborhood in Superior alone, and an additional 210 may have been destroyed in Old Town Superior. It’s not yet known how many homes were lost in Louisville and unincorporated areas of Boulder County that were in the fire’s path.
The Element Hotel in Superior also was consumed by the fire. And the nearby shopping center with a Target and Costco was, at the very least, damaged.
The fast-moving fire created such heavy smoke that a hospital in Louisville had to evacuate its patients.
No fatalities have been reported and the sheriff’s office said that it had received no missing persons reports. “But given the ferocity and scope of this fire, it would not surprise me if we find casualties,” Pelle said.
Pelle said the cause of the fire, which was reported midday, is believed to be downed power lines but that it will take several days to make a final determination.
“It’s like the neighborhood any of us live in,” Gov. Jared Polis says of where the fire burned. “Who would think we would be facing a major grassland fire (in December )?”
Polis declared a state of emergency.“This is awful,” the governor told The Colorado Sun.
The entire towns of Superior and Louisville, home to more than 32,000 people, were evacuated as the Marshall fire closed in. People were ordered to flee starting at about 1 p.m.
Videos taken in the area and posted to social media showed flames approaching businesses and patrons evacuating. In one recording, flames were consuming grass and shrubs lining a Costco parking lot as people hurried to their vehicles.
AJ Lauer, 38, of Superior, described her escape as apocalyptic. Thick black smoke filled the sky. Orange lights from emergency vehicles flashed in the distance. Cars stalled in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Marshall Fire coverage
Homesites destroyed in the Marshall fire are going up for sale. Who will buy them? >>
Colorado doesn’t have a statewide fire-resistant construction requirement. Critics say it’s time. >>
She received a call telling her to leave her home at about 1 p.m. After gathering her belongings and jumping in the car with her husband and two sons, ages 3 and 4, Lauer said it took 20 minutes to travel 1 mile from her home and an hour to reach a friend’s home about 6 miles away in Broomfield.
“Superior really only has four streets that lead out of it and one of them was blocked because of the smoke from the fire — they closed it,” Lauer said.
“It was surreal,” she said of the evacuation. “It felt like in a year of apocalypses, here we are having our own personal apocalypse right in the neighborhood.”
Bob Rodellie, a resident of Old Town Superior, said he was near the community of Marshall when he saw smoke.
“Seemed like it only took 20 minutes for the fire to come all the way down,” he said.
By the time he left his home, Rodellie could feel the heat of the fire on his face.
“The worst part is not knowing what we got left,” he said.
Rodellie, his wife, Lorie, and their cat sat in their truck off Colorado 128, fielding calls from family and friends.
“I don’t know what to do next,” said Lorie Rodellie. “I don’t know how I’m feeling.”
Louisville police Chief David Hayes said he was at his department’s headquarters at the corner of Via Appia and McCaslin Boulevard when the fire came roaring through. It was “surreal” to see flames coming at the building. He said the fire seemed to jump closer and closer.
“(We) had to leave the building because not only smoke and fire and then also lost power at the same time,” Hayes said.
Allyson Gutirrez-Bundy, 60, said she evacuated from San Souci Trailer Park south of Boulder at the urging of the property manager. She could see the fire from her trailer, where she has lived for more than two years. “I’m just in shock right now,” she said, shouting over the wind as it rocked her truck.
Gutirrez-Bundy and her dog Little Bear were headed to stables where she keeps her horses.
She said she was frustrated by the lack of national leadership on climate change.
“I’m 60 years old, and I’ve never seen the drought this bad,” said Gutirrez-Bundy, who has lived in the region her whole life. “I’ve been watching the trees die, it was inevitable. I’ve been waiting for this day to come, and I’m really scared.”
The fire began at 11 a.m. near the intersection of Marshall Road and South 66th Street. Flames reached 40 feet in length at times as the winds howled.
By 3 p.m., the plume of smoke became so dense it turned daylight into dusk. Smoke was visible from downtown Denver, about 25 miles away. Interstate 25 to the east was showered with ash.
The region has experienced a historically dry season, leaving grass, shrubs and trees parched. The season’s first significant snow — typically seen months earlier — is forecast for Friday and Saturday. Officials expressed hope that the weather would be more favorable for firefighters Friday.
Fifty-one patients were evacuated from Avista Adventist Hospital in Louisville by 4:15 p.m. as wildfire threatened the facility, which is southeast of the Coal Creek Golf Course.
Twenty-one patients were discharged, five were transferred to Longmont United Hospital and 25 were transferred to St. Anthony North Hospital, according to a news release from Centura Health, a health care network that includes Avista.
It was not clear if the hospital was damaged by fire. Nearby roads were closed and patients were advised to stay away.
“Our hospital is in the center of a neighborhood that burned today,” Avista CEO Isaac Sendros said, calling the level of devastation “heartbreaking.”
Many of Avista employees live in the neighborhoods that burned and don’t know if their homes are still standing, Sedros said.
SCL Health, an organization that has several hospitals along the Front Range including Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette, was receiving patients injured in the fire, but spokesperson Gregg Moss said he could not provide specific numbers.
Good Samaritan’s emergency department was on “divert status” Thursday afternoon, generally meaning ambulances are directed to other facilities, though patients walking in were still being treated, Moss said. The hospital began evacuating critical and fragile patients — starting with six labor and delivery patients and 22 ICU patients — to SCL Health facilities in Denver, Brighton and Wheat Ridge Thursday evening.
The evacuations were done, Moss said, “in case the Boulder grass fires cause the need for additional shifts.”
UC Health’s Broomfield hospital had received six burn victim patients from the fire as of 3 p.m. Thursday, spokesperson Kelli Christensen confirmed.
The strong wind toppled power lines across the region. As of Thursday afternoon, Xcel Energy was reporting 362 outages in Colorado, due largely to wind, with nearly 28,000 customers affected.
Xcel had preemptively shut down power in some areas of the state to prevent power lines from sparking new fires, spokesperson Michelle Aguayo said.
“Our crews are working with fire officials, including responding to requests to stop electric service to areas affected by the fires. The fires may also impact natural gas service in some areas. Our crews are also working in extreme conditions to restore power that has been impacted by the wind,” Aguayo said in a statement.
U.S. 36 has been closed in both directions between Interlocken Loop in Broomfield and Baseline Road in Boulder. Parts of Broomfield had also been evacuated Thursday night as the fire continued to burn.
Meanwhile, the Middle Fork fire also ignited Thursday north of Boulder, near the intersection of North Foothills Highway and Middle Fork Road. It was snuffed out.
That fire is also believed to have been ignited by downed power lines.
The Marshall fire was still burning Thursday night, illuminating the sky over Boulder County. Television news crews were capturing images of previously unscathed homes being consumed by flames.
Pelle said “the weather (Friday) looks much better.”
“The end won’t come until the wind subsides,” said Pelle, the Boulder County sheriff. “This is the kind of fire you can’t fight head on.”