Investigators are trying to determine what sparked a massive fire in a suburban area near Denver that burned neighborhoods to the ground and destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and other buildings. Three people are missing.
The Boulder county sheriff, Joe Pelle, said on Saturday authorities were pursuing tips and had executed a search warrant at “one particular location”. He declined to give details.
A sheriff’s official confirmed one property was under investigation in the Marshall Mesa area, a region of open grassland about two miles west of Superior. A national guard Humvee blocked access to the property, which was only one of several under investigation, the official said.
Utility officials found no downed power lines where the fire broke out. The fire came unusually late in the year, following an extremely dry fall and amid a winter nearly devoid of snow, conditions experts say certainly helped the fire spread.
At least 991 homes and other buildings 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 was not final.
The totals include destroyed barns, outbuildings and other structures but the vast majority were homes, a Boulder county spokesperson, Jennifer Churchill, said late on Saturday.
Authorities had said no one was missing. But Churchill said that was due to confusion. Pelle said officials were organizing cadaver teams to search for the missing. The task is complicated by debris from destroyed structures covered by 8in of snow dumped overnight, he said.
At least seven people were injured in the wildfire that erupted in and around Louisville and Superior, neighboring towns about 20 miles north-west of Denver with a combined population of 34,000.
The blaze, which burned at least 9.4 sq miles, was no longer considered an immediate threat. Snow and temperatures in the single digits cast an eerie scene amid smoldering remains of homes. The smell of smoke still permeated empty streets blocked by national guard troops in Humvees.
The conditions compounded the misery of residents who started off the new year trying to salvage what remained of their homes. Utility crews struggled to restore electricity and gas service to homes that survived and dozens lined up to get space heaters, bottled water and blankets at Red Cross shelters. Xcel Energy urged residents to use fireplaces and wood stoves to stay warm and keep pipes from freezing.
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 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 two hot chocolate mochas at a nearby cafe. The Superior couple couldn’t find a hotel and were contemplating hiking two miles back to their home. Their neighborhood was still blocked 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.
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. “We thought 2022 might be better. And then we had Omicron. And now we have this, and it’s not starting out very well.”