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Urban wildfires burned 6,000 acres and hundreds of homes near Denver

Damage to homes burned by wildfires after they ripped through a development are shown Friday in Superior, Colo.
David Zalubowski
/
AP
Damage to homes burned by wildfires after they ripped through a development are shown Friday in Superior, Colo.

Updated December 31, 2021 at 6:09 PM ET

Urban wildfires north of Denver that spread in what Gov. Jared Polis called "the blink of an eye" and destroyed at least 500 homes are largely contained.

That's according to local and state officials who spoke at a Friday morning briefing.

There are no reports of fatalities from the wind-whipped blazes that burned an estimated 6,000 acres in Boulder County.

"There are still areas burning inside the fire zone, around homes and shrubbery," said Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, "but we're not expecting to see any growth in the fire."

Pelle said the snowfall that's begun in the area "will certainly help our efforts."

Polis flew over the affected areas Friday morning and described what he called fires that "hit close to home for so many of us."

"This wasn't a wildfire in the forest," he said. "It was a suburban and urban fire that was a disaster in fast motion [happening] in course of half a day."

Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse also toured the devastated area on Friday.

"There are entire subdivisions, entire neighborhoods that have tragically been wiped out," he told NPR's All Things Considered.

Many residents "lost everything, all their belongings, their home and had [no] more than a moment's notice essentially to flee their homes, some with only the clothes on their back because of the way that these flames metastasized because of hurricane winds that our community was experiencing yesterday," Neguse told NPR. "So just unprecedented devastation, and it's going to be a long road to recovery for our community."

Drought, high winds fed the fires

The speed and intensity of the blazes was caused by a mix of dry conditions due to months of drought and winds gusting to over 100 mph.

"Many families [had] minutes to get whatever they could, their pets, their kids into the car and leave," Polis said. "The last 24 hours have been devastating, [but] we might have our very own New Year's miracle on our hands if it holds up that there was no loss of life."

Pelle said "it's all a good guess right now" as to how many homes were destroyed.

"I would estimate it's going to be at least 500 homes," he said. "I would not be surprised if it's a thousand."

Tens of thousands of people were evacuated. Polis said temporary emergency shelters are housing "about 200 people," while many others sought refuge with friends or in other areas.

Pelle said he knows that residents want to return to their homes "as soon as possible to assess damage." But, he said, in many of those neighborhoods that are currently blocked off, it's still too dangerous to return.

"We saw still active fire in many places this morning, we saw downed powerlines. We saw a lot of risk that we're still trying to mitigate," he said.

As far as how the fires started, Pelle said, "we do know we had power lines down in the area of the origin of the fire. The origin of the fire hasn't been confirmed. It's suspected to be power lines, but we are investigating that today."

"We're investigating anything we find out there," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.