Snow extinguishes Colorado wildfires with 3 missing, nearly 1,000 homes set on fire
Updated Jan. 1, 2022, 5:43 p.m. ET
As overnight snow finally put out the most destructive wildfires in Colorado history, Boulder County officials now say three people are missing.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said authorities plan to bring in dead dogs because those missing are likely dead.
“The structures where these people are believed to be are completely destroyed and covered with about 8 inches of snow at the moment,” Pelle told reporters on Saturday afternoon.
Thursday’s Marshall Fire ravaged the towns of Superior and Louisville, two towns in the suburb stretching from Denver to Boulder, forcing the evacuation of more than 30,000 people and leaving piles of ash and rubble where hundreds of houses once stood.
Authorities previously estimated that at least 500 homes had been destroyed, but on Saturday Pelle said the latest tally was 991 destroyed, including 553 in Louisville and 332 in Superior. 127 other homes were damaged, the sheriff said.
Boulder County officials had announced Friday that no one had died and that all missing persons had been found. Governor Jared Polis called it a “New Year’s miracle.”
But later on Friday, local television channel 9News reported that a 91-year-old woman named Nadine Turnbull was still missing. Family members told the station that they tried unsuccessfully to evacuate Turnbull from his home in Old Town Superior during the fire.
“They tried to get out the front door with the neighbor. He was engulfed,” Turnbull’s grandson Hutch Armstrong told 9News. The family subsequently reported her missing.
“I think the sheriff was probably not informed enough by us,” Jennifer Churchill, spokesperson for the Boulder Office of Emergency Management, Recount Colorado sun. “It was an unfortunate mistake. We feel bad.”
The fires, which suddenly and dramatically arose Thursday, were extinguished by snowfall that started Friday afternoon and lasted through the night until Saturday. More than 8 inches fell in Louisville, the National Weather Service reported.
The wintry weather – with high temperatures expected to reach only the mid-teens on Saturday – presented its own issues for residents lucky enough to be able to return home.
Persistent power and gas outages have been should affect thousands on weekends and on Saturday, the town of Superior closed the water supply service in the burn zone to prevent pipe breaks.
“The snow came in and it’s wonderful because it helped put out the fire. But it creates other challenges with the pipes frozen and things like that,” Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann said. in an interview Friday afternoon with local radio KOA.
While Colorado is no stranger to destructive wildfires, the fires typically strike more remote areas of the state.
Thursday’s blaze was an urban grass fire, with dry conditions exacerbated by powerful gusts of wind which made it difficult for firefighters to fight the flames from airplanes.
Authorities initially suggested the blaze may have been started by blown power lines. But utility company Xcel Energy reported on Friday that none of its power lines in the area where the fire started had been shot down, questioning that explanation.
“As a general rule, communication lines (telephone, cable, Internet, etc.) would not be the cause of a fire. The full investigation is still ongoing and we will share further updates as they become available. ” says a county update.
Climate change has lengthened the fire season in the state, said Jennifer Balch, fire researcher and director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado in Boulder. And 2021 has been an exceptionally dry year.
“Climate change is essentially keeping our fuels drier for longer. Those herbs that were burning – they was cooked all fall and all winter. Balch said.
In Denver, snow usually falls for the first time in October. But this year, the city saw no snow until 0.3 inch fell in mid-December, breaking the previous record of November 21, set in 1934.
Snowfall on Friday and Saturday blanketed much of the state, with about 5 inches in Denver and nearly a foot in Boulder.
That could be enough snow to finally put an end to the unusually dry conditions that allowed these wildfires to spread, said Bernie Meier, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Boulder.
“If we keep getting these systems once a week – even once every two weeks – that should be enough to help moisten things enough to help with other issues,” he said.
James Doubek contributed reporting.
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