Injuries, casualties are uncertain as the Marshall fire tears through Boulder County

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) – Strong winds on Thursday wreaked havoc throughout the Front Range, toppling large rigs, causing power outages, destroying structures and helping to trigger what has already become the most devastating wildfire in Colorado history.

Friday’s sunrise will provide the first glimpse of the devastation caused by the Marshall fire, which had consumed nearly 600 homes at sunset Thursday and continued its tear through Boulder County overnight.

Injuries, fatalities uncertain

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle called it “a shocking day in Boulder County.”

With gusts of at least 105 mph, the wind – paired with extremely dry conditions – triggered two significant fires in the county. The Middle Fork fire was reported just before noon. 10:30 a.m. near North Foothills Highway and Middle Fork Road, but it was attacked quickly and under surveillance in the late afternoon, with no reports of loss of structures, Pelle said.

The Marshall fire was reported just after noon. 11 at South Foothills Highway and Marshall Road. It grew and spread rapidly during the day, reaching about 1,600 acres by 5 p.m. Mandatory evacuations were issued in Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County.

“This was a terrible event,” Pelle said. He said the fire eroded football field lengths in seconds, and some respondents said they had never seen anything like it.

Governor Jared Polis soon declared a state of emergency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved funding to help with the effort.

Avista Adventist Hospital in Louisville, with flames within a block or two of the facility, was evacuated along with other care centers suffering from smoke exposure. Louisville Police Chief Dave Hayes said his department building was evacuated due to fires nearby.

Parts of Broomfield and Westminster were also under evacuation orders, with parts of Arvada under warning before evacuation, but all were lifted before midnight.

A police officer reported an eye injury as windswept debris flew into it and six more people affected by the fire were treated at a hospital in the area.

No one was reported missing Thursday night. Pelle said because of “the intensity of the fire and its presence in such a densely populated area, we will not be surprised if there are injuries or deaths.”

The fast-moving fire made it difficult for firefighters to reach the affected areas, often forcing them to retreat. Wind conditions grounded aircraft that could be used at night to help map the fire.

At a press conference at At 5 p.m., Pelle said an estimated 370 homes in the Sagamore subdivision, just west of the Superior, were lost along with another 210 homes in the Old Town Superior. Between Superior and Marshall, near Eldorado Springs, “a number of homes and small subdivisions” were also lost.

The Target shopping complex in Superior was on fire, and the Element Hotel there was fully engulfed. Pelle later said businesses and malls near U.S. 36 and McCaslin Boulevard were also affected.

‘There were people who did not want to evacuate’

The calculated losses are expected to fall into the air on Friday when the crews are able to make their first assessments in daylight. Officials will hold and media briefing at 10 a.m. Friday.

Police living in Boulder County pointed out that while Colorado saw its three largest forest fires in the state’s history in 2020, each reaching more than 200,000 acres, the burned areas were largely uninhabited wilderness. The area affected by the rapid Marshall fire was largely around suburbs and commercial properties.

“It’s like the neighborhood you live in,” Polis said. “It’s like the neighborhood that any of us live in. So 1,600 acres near a population center can be, and is, in this case, absolutely devastating.”

Officials spent Thursday “rushing in front of those flames to try to get people out of their danger,” Pelle said. Respondents often had to turn away as they approached neighborhoods due to the extreme heat. Some frontline emergency services live in the areas during evacuation and fought the fires without knowing how their own home had fared.

Pelle said Friday will give officials the first opportunity to truly understand the fire’s devastation and whether it caused any losses.

“There were people who would not evacuate,” Pelle said. “We have a series of reports of deputies actually contacting people who refused to evacuate, and we know they are home. So we pray that they came out on time.”

95% of Boulder County during severe or extreme drought

The National Weather Service in Boulder pointed to the recent record drought in the area as “one of the many factors” that led to the fire. Denver has been the driest ever since July, and snowfall is at a record low.

Nearly 95% of Boulder County is under severe or extreme drought.

“With no snow on the ground, this would definitely not have happened the way it did,” snow hydrologist Keith Musselman told the Associated Press Thursday.

Musselman was at home when Thursday’s fires broke out not far away. He said this serious fire risk is expected in September and October after a dry summer, but the lack of rainfall so late in the season is very unusual.

The National Weather Service predicts that up to a foot of snow may fall on Friday in Boulder and that moisture will bring significant relief, Musselman said.

Officials believe broken down power lines caused the fire, though information is still preliminary.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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