SUPERIOR, Colo. (AP) — A Colorado official says nearly 1,000 homes were destroyed, hundreds more were damaged, and that three people are missing after a wildfire charred numerous neighborhoods in a suburban area at the base of the Rocky Mountains northwest of Denver.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle also said Saturday that investigators are still trying to find the cause of the blaze that erupted Thursday.
Officials had previously estimated that at least 500 homes — and possibly 1,000 — were destroyed. They also announced earlier Saturday that two people were missing.
The wind-whipped wildfire blackened entire neighborhoods in the area between Denver and Boulder.
Authorities had said earlier no one was missing. But Boulder County spokeswoman Jennifer Churchill said Saturday that was due to confusion inherent when agencies are scrambling to manage an emergency.
Pelle said officials were organizing cadaver teams to search for the missing in the Superior area and in unincorporated Boulder County. The task is complicated by debris from destroyed structures, covered by 8 inches (20 centimeters) of snow dumped by a storm overnight, he said.
At least 991 homes were destroyed, Pelle said: 553 in Louisville, 332 in Superior and 106 in unincorporated parts of the county. Hundreds more were damaged. Pelle cautioned that the tally is not final.
The cause of the blaze was under investigation. Pelle said utility officials found no downed power lines around where the fire broke out. He said authorities were pursuing a number of tips and had executed a search warrant at “one particular location.” He declined to give details.
At least seven people were injured in the wildfire that erupted in and around Louisville and Superior, neighboring towns about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Denver with a combined population of 34,000. More than 500 homes were feared destroyed.
The blaze, which burned at least 9.4 square miles (24 square kilometers), was no longer considered an immediate threat — especially after an overnight dumping of snow and frigid temperatures Saturday. The bitter cold compounded the misery of Colorado residents who started off the new year trying to salvage what remains of their homes.
At least 6 inches (0.15 meters) of snow and temperatures in the single digits cast an eerie scene amid still-smoldering remains of homes. Despite the shocking change in weather, the smell of smoke still permeated empty streets blocked off by National Guard troops in Humvees.
Utility crews struggled to restore electricity and gas service to homes that survived, and dozens of people lined up to get donated space heaters, bottled water and blankets at Red Cross shelters. Xcel Energy urged other residents to use fireplaces and wood stoves to stay warm and keep their pipes at home from freezing.
Families filled a long line of cars waiting to pick up space heaters and bottled water at a Salvation Army distribution center at the YMCA in Lafayette, just north of Superior.
Monarch High School seniors Noah Sarasin and his twin brother Gavin had been volunteering at that location for two days, directing traffic and distributing donations.
“We have a house, no heat but we still have a house,” Noah Sarasin said. “I just want to make sure that everyone else has heat on this very cold day.”
Hilary and Patrick Wallace picked up two heaters, then ordered 2 hot chocolate mochas at a nearby cafe. The Superior couple couldn’t find a hotel and were contemplating hiking 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) back to their home; their neighborhood was still blocked off to traffic. The family slept in one room on New Year’s Eve.
Both teared up when a man entered the shop and joked aloud that he’d lost his coffee mugs — and everything else — in the fire. The man was in good spirits, laughing at the irony of the situation.
“I have a space heater and a house to put it in. I don’t even know what to say to them,” Hilary said, wiping away a tear.
Superior resident Jeff Markley arrived in his truck to pick up a heater. He said he felt lucky to be “just displaced” since his home is intact.
“We’re making do, staying with friends, and upbeat for the new year. Gotta be better than this last one,” Markley said.
Not everyone felt as positive.
“It’s bittersweet because we have our house, but our friends don’t. And our neighbors don’t,” said Louisville resident Judy Givens as she picked up a heater with her husband, Rusty. “We thought 2022 might be better. And then we had omicron. And now we have this, and it’s not starting out very well.”
Dozens trudged through the snow to determine the condition of their homes and take belongings.
Brian Williams, a resident of Superior, used a sled to evacuate his son from their home as the fire raged. It survived the blaze but was filled with ash and lacked utilities.
“We had to get our badges for work and medicine and stuff,” Williams said.
Donna O’Brien bundled up with her son Robert to make the 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) trek to check on their home. “I think we’re still in kind of shock,” she said. “This is our neighborhood and it happens everywhere else, but it’s not supposed to happen where you live.”
The wildfire broke out unusually late in the year, following an extremely dry fall and amid a winter nearly devoid of snow until the overnight snowfall. Scientists say climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Ninety percent of Boulder County is in severe or extreme drought, and it hadn’t seen substantial rainfall since mid-summer. Denver set a record for consecutive days without snow before it got a small storm on Dec. 10, its last snowfall before the wildfires broke out.