Boulder fire fueled by 100 mph winds a firefighter's worst fears, officials say

More than 6,000 acres burned; at least 500 homes lost

SUPERIOR, Co. – Colorado officials are calling it a miracle that no deaths have been reported from the grassland fire fueled by more than 100 mph winds that swept through Boulder County in a matter of hours.

High winds and dry conditions allowed a grassfire near Marshall Road in Superior to rapidly spread Thursday, quickly overtaking communities and businesses and prompting more than 30,000 to evacuate. 

"This was a disaster in fast motion all over the course of half a day," Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said during a news conference Friday. "Many families having minutes, minutes to get whatever they could, their pets, their kids into the car and leave. The last 24 hours have been devastating. It's really unimaginable."

While Colorado has experienced some of the largest wildfires in its history in the last few years, this blaze happened in an urban and suburban community. Families shopping at Costco or with their children at Chuck E. Cheese fled with minutes to spare. A Tesla dealership and a hotel were among the scorched businesses in Superior. 

About 2,000 homes in the communities of Superior and Louisville are in the burned area, but Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said due to the fire's chaotic movements, not all of those homes were lost. 

"We did see entire subdivisions … that are totally gone that accounts for easily 500 homes. West of Superior, out towards the Marshall Eldorado Springs area, we saw dozens of burned-out homes," Pelle said.

The south side of Louisville suffered catastrophic losses as well, Pelle said, with dozens of homes lost.

Fire moving as fast as the wind

Over 6,000 acres burned in less than 24 hours. Officials said the fire is now well contained, and the incoming snow should help.

Mike Smitty, the fire incident commander, described the fire behavior as "moving as the same speed of the wind." In Boulder on Thursday, wind gusts were reported over 105 mph, with more frequent gusts between 60 and 70 mph for most of the day. The NWS issued a High Wind Warning that lasted until Thursday night.

"This was a rapid-fire over a period of hours with gusts of up to 105 miles an hour, leapfrogging instantly over highways, over roads, across neighborhoods, really kind of an alignment of many of the worst possible factors that the firefighters fear," Polis said. "We've had very little precipitation, very little snow, coupled with gusts of up to 105 to 110 miles an hour, really led to a combination that was more destructive in a shorter period of time than anything we've seen so far."

According to the National Weather Service in Boulder, for the second half of the year, the Denver area has been the driest on record by over an inch.

Friday morning snowfall in Boulder was a welcome sight for first responders fighting the fires, providing much-needed moisture to scorched Earth. The Boulder area is expected to see 5 to 10 inches of snow.

Cause of the fire under investigation

Damage assessments are continuing Friday, and the final numbers won't be available until later Friday or Saturday. Officials are asking evacuees not to try and return to check on their homes just yet because powerlines are down, and firefighters are still working to put out hot spots.

Investigators initially believed downed powerlines sparked the fires because of reports from residents, however, on Friday the Boulder Office of Emergency Managerment said Xcel Energy has inspected all of their lines within the ignition area and found no downed powerlines.

"They did find some compromised communication lines that may have been misidentified as powerlines. Typically, communications lines (telephone, cable, internet, etc.) would not be the cause of a fire," OEM said.

The full investigation into the cause continues.

A New Year's miracle: No missing persons or deaths 

Less than 24 hours after multiple fires were reported in Boulder County, there have been no deaths so far associated with the blaze. One person was reported missing Thursday and was later located. 

"It's unbelievable when you look at the devastation that we don't have a list of 100 missing persons, but we don't," Pelle said. "I'm hoping that's a miracle because it would be given the circumstances."

The governor spoke to President Joe Biden, who authorized an expedited major disaster declaration. This will allow people who suffered losses, including businesses and homeowners, to get immediate housing small business assistance without waiting for the preliminary damage assessment.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is on the ground working to find housing for likely thousands of families.  

A complete list of burned homes will be posted on the Boulder Office of Emergency Management website when it's ready. However, not all homes were lost entirely and suffered severe damages.