BOULDER COUNTY — The Marshall fire may have destroyed as many as 1,000 homes east of Boulder, authorities said Friday as improving weather and an incoming snowstorm eliminated the risk of Colorado’s most destructive fire getting even worse.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said there have been no fatalities reported and that no people are missing after the fast-moving fire swept from Superior into Louisville on Thursday. He called that a “miracle.”
“It’s unbelievable, when you look at the devastation, that we don’t have a list of 100 missing persons,” Pelle said at a news conference with Gov. Jared Polis and other officials.
Pelle said he’s confident more than 500 homes were consumed by the 6,000-acre fire, which is believed to have been caused by down power lines and was fanned by wind gusts of up to 110 miles per hour on Thursday. Superior and south Louisville were the hardest-hit areas. Businesses were also destroyed, including a hotel.
Xcel Energy officials say they have not been able to confirm that any power lines were down or caused the fire, the Boulder Office of Emergency Management said in a news release.
Pelle said the fire formed “a mosaic” and ran “in fingers.” Some areas were burned to the ground, while others escaped damage. There were more than 2,000 homes in the burn area, but Pelle said “we certainly did not lose 2,000 homes.”
Polis, Colorado Department of Public Safety Chief Stan Hilkey and Pelle were among those who surveyed fire damage from the air Friday morning.
“The last 24 hours have been devastating,” Polis said. The governor said he spoke to President Joe Biden, who approved an expedited disaster declaration.
“It feels like we’ve experienced enough loss and tragedy in these two years and then yesterday happened over the course of several hours,” Polis said. “This is our community and to watch it burn so quickly, so unexpectedly, is something that I think we’re all struggling to believe and understand. It is so different than fires that over periods of weeks and months develop. This played out with 105-mile-per-hour winds over a course of half a day.”
He added: “We are going to work hard with families and small businesses to rebuild our treasured communities, homes and sanctuaries for folks.”
Calmer winds, cooler temperatures and a light snow that began falling in some areas were helping firefighters on Friday. Pelle said fire officials do not expect the fire to grow on Friday, thanks to the better weather. Pockets within the existing burn area continue to smolder.
Several inches of snow — the first significant snowfall in what has been a historically dry season — were forecast for the area through Saturday.
“Unfortunately, so much damage has already been done. But the one thing we do have going in our favor is that generally, the winds will be lighter,” said David Barjenbruch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder.
Some of the thousands of people who evacuated from Superior and Louisville returned early Friday and lined roads overlooking the burn area in hopes of learning whether their homes survived the flames.
The thick smoke plume that blanketed the region on Thursday had mostly lifted early Friday, but pockets of smoke continued to rise from the burn area.
Among those who suffered loss was Michelle Clifford of Louisville. On Friday morning, she and her partner and her 19-year-old son stood amid the smoking ash of what was their home in the Enclave, a neighborhood of several dozen homes clustered along a circular street in Louisville. Flames were still whipping in the basement.
When they noticed that natural gas was still pumping out of the gas meter about 5 feet from the fire, they left.
“The basement was still on fire,” Clifford said later, while sitting in the Village Coffee Shop in Boulder, in shock and trying to make sense of what they had seen. “We could smell the gas. It was pretty intense.”
The trio had snaked through multiple neighborhoods to reach the Enclave earlier that morning, then took videos to document the destruction. They counted seven houses still standing, out of 58.
Clifford put the addresses of the remaining homes on the neighborhood’s private Facebook page, to end the agony of waiting for their neighbors.
“My stuff is replaceable,” she said. “I don’t even care. I’m worried about everybody else.”
Elsewhere Friday, residents hugged and consoled each other as they looked over the scenes of devastation. One resident said she was too emotional to talk, as a firefighting plane flew overhead.
Chip Wise and his wife, Judy, were parked along South Boulder Road on Friday morning surveying the damage. A neighbor had just hiked in to check the scene and told them their house had survived. They had just minutes to pack and flee on Thursday as the fire quickly approached.
“What’s funny is that when you’re running, the things you take are odd, and the things you leave are the things you need,” Chip Wise said. He said they did manage to take their medications and their wills.
Although their house survived, they expect to have significant smoke damage.
“Are we relieved? Yes. But we have new challenges,” he said.
From across the region, neighbors pitched in to help each other. Some made sure others got to safety. Others put evacuees up in their homes or sheltered their pets.
Victoria Gremellion saw the smoke from her home in Louisville and knew it was time to evacuate on Thursday. She looks after her neighbor, Doris Channel, and her husband, Richard. She made sure they got out, too, along with Doris’ half-poodle mix, Trina.
“I was a nervous wreck,” Gremellion said at the Lafayette YMCA shelter on Friday, recounting how she evacuated herself, her son, two dogs, two cats, with Doris and Richard following behind. “I knew I had to push through. I tried not to think too much.”
She doesn’t know whether her house is still there.
Doris Channel has lived in Louisville for all her 85 years.
“I’ve never, ever seen anything like this,” she said. “I just want to go home to my bed. I just hope it’s still there.”
Michael Ingoldby lived with his wife and 18-month-old son in a home in Superior’s Sagamore subdivision. They found out the house they purchased in 2009 was destroyed in the Marshall fire after seeing a satellite image of their neighborhood.
Ingoldby happened to be out to lunch when the fire came through. His wife hurried home to grab the dog and laptops before fleeing the fast-approaching flames.
“She left the house with ears full of ash,” he said. “Ash in her bra. Just all over the place.”
Ingoldby said he’s just happy that his family is safe.
“In the end, it’s just stuff,” he said of everything he lost in the fire. “Last night we were just so thankful that she was able to get the dog.”
Ingolby grew up in Conifer and said he is “well versed in wildland fire.” He never expected it in Superior.
“Just seeing that happen down in suburbia — it’s not something that we ever expected,” he said. “We always kind of jokes around that the houses in Sagamore are close together and that if one were to go they would all go.”
As for what’s next for his family, Ingoldby has no idea.
“The rental market was already tight to begin with before this fire,” he said. “If thousands of homes burned, it’s only going to get tighter.”
Edward Shahverdian, 47, has been homeless since 2014. He came to Louisville to complete court-ordered volunteer service at a thrift store. When the fire started, he began hobbling in the other direction, slowed down by a frostbitten foot damaged by sleeping outside last year.
A school bus driver with an empty bus pulled over, urged him on board, and high-tailed it to the shelter. A silver lining: he said the Lafayette YMCA shelter is the nicest accommodations he’s had in many days, and advocates here say they may be able to connect him with better housing resources.
Racked with kidney stones, lupus and an anxiety disorder, Shahverdian said he’s extremely grateful for the shelter.
“It feels so good to be here, to see that people will help you,” he said. “I’m hoping somebody here can give me a haircut.”
Clint Folsom, mayor of Superior, told CBS4 early Friday that he still doesn’t know whether his own house survived the night. He said two of his family members lost homes.
Folsom said he’s hearing from many people wondering when they will be allowed in to the area to check on their homes.
The emergency department at Good Samaritan Medical Center, in Lafayette, reopened Friday morning after evacuating about 55 patients when the Marshall Fire reached within three blocks of the facility Thursday.
The labor and delivery department is expected to resume regular operations at noon; labor and delivery patients and intensive care unit patients were among those transferred to Lutheran Medical Center, Saint Joseph Hospital and Platte Valley Medical Center on Thursday.
About one hundred patients remained at the hospital Thursday night. Good Samaritan Medical Center spokesperson Gregg Moss said he could not provide a number for how many patients injured in the fire were being treated at SCL Health facilities.
Temperatures dropped significantly overnight as a cold front moved through the area.
Up to 4 to 8 inches of snow is also forecast for Boulder, Louisville and Superior, with up to 10 inches in the foothills, Barjenbruch said. Significant snowfall will likely start to fall about 1 p.m. – though flurries could start earlier – and continue through the night, he said.
Barjenbruch said snow will help remove smoke from the air. Many residents have been complaining of respiratory problems amid the thick smoke over the past 24 hours.
“It will get higher particulates out of the air and get smoke particles, soot and ash out of the air and cleaner air to breathe (Friday) afternoon and evening,” he said.
“The fire races so fast. The fuels are so dry. The grass is so dry. Obviously, the fire just runs where the wind blows it and it does it very quickly,” Barjenbruch said. “So that’s what makes it a very dangerous situation like what we had (Thursday).”
If the estimates of the number of homes lost are accurate, the Marshall fire will be Colorado’s most destructive fire in history in terms of the number of homes burned, surpassing the Black Forest fire, which destroyed 489 homes and killed two people north of Colorado Springs in 2013; the East Troublesome fire, which burned 366 homes and killed two people north of Kremmling in Grand County in October 2020; and the Waldo Canyon fire, which burned 347 homes and killed two people near Colorado Springs in 2012.
It’s expected to be the state’s costliest fire when it comes to insurance claims, even if it’s far from the largest in size, said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Association.
“It isn’t the size of the fire for insurance. It’s where the fire happens, the number of homes in the area, the cost to repair and rebuild those homes,” she said. “When you have this densely populated urban area that’s hit with this many homes — at least 1,000 — there’s going to be high insurance losses.”
Evacuation orders remain in effect for Superior and Louisville. Evacuation and preevacuation orders for Westminster and Broomfield have been lifted.
Pelle, the Boulder County sheriff, said it would be some time before officials had specific addresses of homes that were lost to share with residents. He urged people to stay away from the burn area for now and obey closure areas.
“It’s still too dangerous,” he said
This is a developing story that will be updated.
Colorado Sun staff writers Jen Brown and Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this report.