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With little time to get out, hundreds of Colorado residents lose their homes in a ferocious wildfire

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(CNN) A vicious wildfire that began Thursday morning in Boulder County, Colorado, swallowed about 1,600 acres in a matter of hours, burning hundreds of homes and prompting orders for some 30,000 people across two communities to evacuate.

Amid historically powerful winds and drought-parched land, some 370 homes were destroyed in a single subdivision just west of the town of Superior, while another 210 homes may have been lost in Old Town Superior, the Boulder County sheriff said Thursday. No deaths or missing people were reported immediately.

As quickly as the winds began, they subsided overnight and the weather started a quick swing to the other extreme: The fire-ravaged area is under a winter weather warning Friday morning, with 5 to 10 inches of snow expected to fall by Saturday, CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford said.

Downed power lines appear to have caused the Marshall Fire, Sheriff Joe Pelle said. About 15,000 customers had no power early Friday in Colorado, most of them in Boulder County, while the blaze grew to 6,200 acres overnight, Michelle Kelly with the Boulder Incident Management Team told CNN affiliate KUSA.

“We do still have active burning within the fire perimeter both in the communities of Superior and Louisville,” she said Friday morning.

Thursday’s event was a “truly historic windstorm,” with winds gusting over 100 mph in Jefferson and Boulder Counties and fueling the blazes, the National Weather Service said.
“One minute, there was nothing. Then, plumes of smoke appeared. Then, flames. Then, the flames jumped around and multiplied,” said Boulder Heights resident Andy Thorn, who’d always worried about wildfires during periods of high wind. He watched the flames and smoke spread Thursday from his home in the foothills.

Wind gusts Thursday pushed the blaze “down a football field in a matter of seconds,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said.

“There’s no way,” he said, “to quantify in any financial way, the price of a loss — of losing the chair that was handed down to you from your grandmother, of losing your childhood yearbooks, of losing your photos, of losing your computer files — which hundreds of Colorado families have experienced today with no warning.”

Among them is a University of Colorado assistant football coach who said his family lost “every material possession” Thursday in the wildfire.

“Our home, cars, and everything we had in our home lost to the fires that ripped through our community,” Mark Smith tweeted. “Thank you to those who reached out. Processing how to completely start over and grateful for our health.”

Former Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver evacuated animals Thursday afternoon from the home of his brother, who with his family is out of the country, he told CNN on Friday.
“The winds were going crazy strong. We saw two different flame fronts near their house about half a mile away,” said Weaver, who’s also the former fire chief for the community of Sugarloaf.

“We spent a couple hours loading the animals into trailers and trucks and taking them away, pulling out the computer and photo albums as the flames got closer and closer,” he said. “By the time we left, say around 4, the flames were a few hundred yards away — maybe 300, 400 yards away. So, we had to leave.”

“We hope the house is OK,” Weaver added, “but have no word yet today.”

Evacuation centers were opened, including one for evacuees who have Covid-19, Polis said. In line with a nationwide explosion of cases, Colorado on Thursday recorded its highest ever daily coronavirus case count, with 5,427 cases per day on average statewide over the prior week, according to a CNN analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.

Overall, “we had 300 people overnight in shelters,” Kelly said Friday.

On Thursday at a Costco in Superior, Hunt Frye was shopping for soup for his wife when a worker told customers to evacuate. People initially were calm as they left the store, Frye said, but then took off like “antelope, running all over the place.”

“It was pretty scary. It was kind of like a life beyond a dream,” he said. “It was just apocalyptic-feeling.”

As he drove away through the haze, Frye was “trying to get out of there in a safe manner.”
“But people were running from their houses with their pet cats and, you know, everybody was very panic-stricken,” he said. “The thing that really struck me was the fear in the police officers’ face(s) who were trying to kind of get traffic going. They were legitimately scared.”

A notification Thursday morning from their daughters’ day care in nearby Louisville pinged Chris Smith and his wife, of downtown Superior, to “come pick up the girls,” he told CNN affiliate KCNC. “Please act quickly,” city officials there had urged in their evacuation order.
“I called my wife, and she started collecting valuables and clothes to evacuate,” Smith said. He drove through smoke on his way there and on his way back.

Across the fire zone, roads were blocked by smoke and traffic gridlock as people tried to make their way out.

The situation on the ground was “unbelievable,” Weaver told CNN.

“When you talk about what’s going on on the ground, it was really about trying to stay away from the front of the fire that was being pushed forward and get everything out that we could,” he said. “The focus was on life safety.”

At a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Superior, families with young children could see smoke out wide windows and made their way toward an exit, video taken by Jason Fletcher shows.
“Right now,” one woman said. “It’s OK.”

“I’m scared,” said a child as another woman leaned hard into the front door to pry it open against blowing wind.

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