The wind-driven Marshall fire devoured 991 homes and businesses and damaged 127 more, authorities confirmed Saturday, making it Colorado’s most destructive fire in history when it comes to the number of homes burned.
Three people were missing and presumed dead – two in Superior and one in Marshall. Boulder County authorities had previously announced that all missing people were accounted for.
The new details came at a media briefing where authorities also delivered a stark warning about the devastation wrought by the record-setting fire.
“Please be prepared to see your community changed in ways you did not expect,” Louisville Police Chief Dave Hayes said.
Of the structures lost, 553 are in Louisville, 332 are in Superior and 102 are in unincorporated Boulder County. Of those damaged, 45 are in Louisville, 60 are in Superior and 22 are in unincorporated Boulder. Those figures are still not final, officials said.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle announced that an investigation into the fire’s source had led authorities to execute a search warrant. He declined to provide further details.
Much of Louisville and Superior were expected to reopen to residents Saturday afternoon, three days after violent winds and drought conditions whipped up a devastating wildfire that swept through 6,000 acres in Boulder County.
The nearly 10 inches of snow that blanketed the region overnight will also complicate efforts to locate three missing people, as the structures where they are believed to be have collapsed. Pelle said the scenes are too dangerous to enter and that cadaver dogs will be used on Sunday to help locate the missing.
Given the speed and ferocity of the fire, Pelle said it is “miraculous that it’s three and not hundreds,” of people missing.
Authorities are still investigating the cause of the fire. Although initial reports pointed to downed power lines, fire officials have said they found only downed telecommunications lines in the area where the fire started. Pelle said those cables would not have sparked a fire.
The updated damage toll means that the Marshall fire consumed roughly twice the number of homes compared to what had been the state’s most destructive fire, the 2013 Black Forest fire, which destroyed 489 homes and killed two people north of Colorado Springs.
They are followed on the list of the state’s most destructive fires by the 2020 East Troublesome fire, which burned 366 homes in Grand County, and the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, which burned 347 homes and killed two people on Colorado Springs’ west side.
Returning residents faced challenging conditions Saturday.
In Superior, evacuees coped with the bitter cold as they checked on their homes and retrieved belongings. Others stayed to use space heaters or other means to prevent water pipes from freezing.
They arrived to the acrid smell of burned homes and smoke still rising from the ruins. Some homes stood in eerie tranquility, next to neighboring homes reduced to rubble.
“I can’t celebrate, because my neighbors lost everything,” said Tom Kimura, after seeing his townhome in Superior was still standing but a neighbor’s home 30 feet away was in ruins.
In Louisville, Demy and Tony Nguyen returned to the nail salon they’ve owned for 20 years and found it had been gutted by flames. The shop was the sole source of income for the couple, who immigrated from Vietnam and have four kids, ages 10-17.
“I have a lot of college to pay for soon,” Demy said.
Demy Nguyen, who works seven days a week, was in the shop when the fire broke out. It seemed far away, so she kept working on a client’s nails — until the fire suddenly roared up toward the shop.
“We never got an order to leave, then fire and ash were just chasing us,” she recalled.
“I don’t know what to say,” she added. “I have to support my family. I need a new job. But I love my clients, I make good tips, and this is a good area. Twenty years, then gone so fast.”
Louisville and Superior residents are under orders to boil water for consumption, after city officials switched to untreated water to open up resources for fighting the fire. Natural gas was also shut off across burn areas to limit hazards, and crews with Xcel Energy are working to restore service.
About 12,000 customers across Louisville and Superior are without natural gas. The company said it has crews going door-to-door to relight pilots, and was able to restore service to 700 people as of Saturday evening. The effort, involving as many as 460 utility workers, could take days to complete.
Efforts to bring back heat and power come as the Denver metro’s first snowstorm brought single-digit temperatures expected to plunge to 15 degrees below zero Saturday night.
Friday’s snowstorm came after a dry start to the winter with little to no snowfall in the Denver metro area.
“Denver International Airport, leading up to the storm, had recorded just 0.3 inches of snow for the whole year,” Hiris said. “As of 5 a.m., they had 5 inches, more than we’ve had all season.”
Conditions will begin to improve Sunday, with temperatures expected to increase to the 30s and 40s.
Meanwhile, authorities are urging people to wait for restrictions to be lifted before returning home, and Xcel is warning residents not to run generators indoors without proper ventilation to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
At Sans Souci trailer park south of Boulder, some residents like Harry Snyder returned Friday as temperatures dropped and the snow began to fall. While the fire spared their trailers, Snyder said gale force winds ripped part of a neighbor’s roof off and blew it into his home. A tree limb fell onto his roof. Power is still out, and now many residents of the community, on Colorado 93 south of Boulder, are worried their pipes will burst in the freezing weather.
“We’re trying to figure out how to shut off those water lines,” Snyder said. “People here can’t afford that kind of damage.”
Residents of the mobile home park are likewise advised to boil their water before consumption, along with customers of the East Boulder County Water District and Eldorado Artesian Springs.
Despite adverse conditions, some trailer park residents planned to ride it out at home.
“If things get worse here, I have no money to repair anything, so I’d like to keep an eye on my home,” Bob Goukas, 82, said Friday as he cranked up a propane heater in his living room. “I’m living on the edge.”
Others weren’t waiting for the power to be restored.
Karla Ottero was taking her cat Pumpkin to a room at the Millennium hotel in Boulder.
“Realistically, a lot of things actually went right for us,” she said. “The park is still here. I’m grateful we were so fortunate.”