BOULDER, Colo. — A ferocious wind-driven wildfire on Thursday destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses near Denver, forcing tens of thousands to flee and blanketing the area in smoke.
The high winds that fanned fires in the area continued into Thursday night as the Boulder suburbs of Superior and Louisville remained under evacuation orders. Firefighters were forced to withdraw in many areas as one large wildfire raged on and another remained under control.
On Thursday night, hundreds of people watched from a ridge top as orange flames tore through the Rock Creek neighborhood of Superior, and numerous other fires dotted the horizon.
Firefighting conditions were expected to improve overnight with decreasing winds. The National Weather Service said a high wind warning was extended through 8 p.m. but winds were expected to lessen overnight. Snow that’s expected Friday could also help douse the blaze, a National Weather Service meteorologist told USA TODAY.
About 600 homes, a Target shopping complex and a hotel have been destroyed by fire in the area, according to Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle.
One fire had burned over 1,600 acres in a suburban area as of Thursday evening, Pelle said at a press conference. At least one first responder was injured and a hospital reported treating several burn victims.
There have been no reports of missing people or fatalities yet. But Pelle said he would not be surprised if there were injuries or fatalities resulting from the fires.
Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency to allow the state to access emergency funds and services.
“This area, for those who don’t know this area of Boulder County, is right in and around suburban sub-developments, stores – It’s like the neighborhood that you live in,” Polis said at the press conference. “1,600 acres near a population center can be, and is in this case, absolutely devastating.”
On Thursday afternoon, a cloud of dark gray smoke could be seen blowing over the town of Superior, located about 20 miles northwest of Denver. The entire town of about 13,000 residents was ordered to evacuate. About 210 homes were lost in the Old Town area of Superior.
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PHOTOS: Wildfires near Denver force thousands to evacuate, vehicles and buildings burned
The city of Louisville, with some 20,000 residents, was also ordered to evacuate. All 370 homes in the Sagamore subdivision of Louisville also burned, Pelle said.
Late Thursday night, Louisville issued a boil water advisory for the entire city in coordination with Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment.
“Protect yourself by using bottled water or boiling any water to be used for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes, and food preparation until further notice,” the advisory said.
Six people were hospitalized with burns at UCHealth Broomfield Hospital, spokeswoman Kelli Christensen told USA TODAY. She could not elaborate on their conditions or the severity of burns due to HIPAA, a health care privacy law, but said all six were being treated currently.
Centura-Avista Adventist Hospital, just northwest of Broomfield, evacuated its patients and employees as the flames grew closer. The hospital was fully evacuated by 4:15 p.m. and sent patients to two sister hospitals. Before the hospital was evacuated, videos posted to social media showed flames just across the street with homes on fire. One video showed hospital workers in a field outside the hospital with a hose nearby that had been used to wet the grass.
“Patients should not attempt to go to Avista Adventist Hospital; nearby roads have been closed. Patients should go to the nearest hospital to receive services or call 9-1-1 if it is emergency,” said Lindsay Radford, a spokeswoman for the hospital.
The Broomfield Detention Center, about 20 miles northwest of Denver, was evacuated late Thursday night. All inmates were evacuated to another facility and are safe, Broomfield police tweeted.
As of 5 p.m., the fire was hopscotching through several neighborhoods in Superior, setting ablaze some houses and leaving others untouched. Almost all that burned were completely unchecked, firefighters powerless to stop the flames being driven by the howling wind.
Pat Kilbride, who has lived in the Old Town area of Superior for 30 years said his house burned down, killing his dog and cat. He said he believed many other homes were also destroyed.
Kilbride rushed toward his house when he heard the fire was approaching the area, but couldn’t get close because of road closures. By the time he arrived on foot, it was already engulfed.
“It’s all gone. The whole Old Town,” he said. “I’m going to head back to my truck and feel sorry for myself.”
Strong winds were helping fuel the blaze with gusts as strong as 115 mph measured earlier in the day just south of Boulder, Bruno Rodriguez, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service told USA TODAY. Constant winds were being measured around 40 mph with higher gusts throughout the region.
Officials suspected some of the fires may have been sparked by downed power lines.
Rodriguez said the winds were unlike anything they’ve seen this season. Coupled with six to seven months of incredibly dry conditions, he said, it was “the worst, most terrible combination that just allowed a fast-moving fire like this.”
The region only saw about 1.6 inches of rain since August, which was “well below normal,” Rodriguez said.
As firefighters continued to battle the raging fire, the area was also placed under a winter storm warning with several inches of snow forecast overnight and into Friday. The wet snow should help douse the blaze, along with winds forecasted to slow into the evening.
“We’re going to thankfully see rapidly changing weather conditions,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been waiting for this snow for a while, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Hughes reported from Boulder.
Contributing: The Associated Press