Snow puts out Colorado wildfires with 3 people missing and nearly 1,000 homes burned
As overnight snow finally extinguished the most destructive wildfires in Colorado history, authorities in Boulder County now say three people are missing.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said authorities are planning to bring cadaver dogs, as those missing are likely to be dead.
"The structures where these folks would be are completely destroyed and covered with about 8 inches of snow right now," Pelle told reporters on Saturday afternoon.
Thursday's Marshall fire tore through the towns of Superior and Louisville, two municipalities in the stretch of suburbs that reach from Denver to Boulder, forcing the evacuation of more than 30,000 people and leaving piles of ash and rubble where hundreds of homes once stood.
Officials had earlier estimated that at least 500 homes were destroyed, but on Saturday, Pelle said the latest count was 991 destroyed — including 553 in Louisville and 332 in Superior. Another 127 homes were damaged, the sheriff said.
Boulder County officials had announced Friday that nobody had died and that all missing persons had been accounted for. Gov. Jared Polis called it a "New Year's miracle."
But later Friday, local TV station 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 her home in Old Town Superior during the fire.
"They tried to go out the front door with the neighbor. It was engulfed," said Hutch Armstrong, Turnbull's grandson-in-law, speaking to 9News. Afterward, the family reported her missing.
"I think the sheriff probably wasn't adequately briefed by us," Jennifer Churchill, a spokeswoman for the Boulder Office of Emergency Management, told The Colorado Sun. "That was an unfortunate error. We feel terrible."
The fires, which sprung up dramatically and suddenly on Thursday, were extinguished by snowfall that began Friday afternoon and lasted overnight into Saturday. More than 8 inches fell in Louisville, the National Weather Service reported.
The winter weather — with high temperatures expected to reach only the mid-teens on Saturday — presented its own problems for residents lucky enough to be able to return home.
Lingering power and gas outages were expected to affect thousands into the weekend, and on Saturday, the town of Superior shut off water service in the burn area in order to prevent pipe bursts.
"The snow has come and that has been wonderful, because it's helped to put out the fire. But it creates some other challenges with pipes freezing and things like that," said Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann in an interview Friday afternoon with local radio station KOA.
Though Colorado is no stranger to destructive wildfires, fires typically strike more remote areas in the state.
Thursday's fire was an urban grass fire, with dry conditions exacerbated by powerful wind gusts that made it difficult for firefighters to combat the flames by plane.
Authorities initially suggested that the fire may have been sparked by power lines downed by the wind. But utility company Xcel Energy reported Friday that none of its power lines in the area where the fire began had been downed, throwing that explanation into question.
"Typically, communications lines (telephone, cable, internet, etc.) would not be the cause of a fire. The full investigation is still ongoing and we will share more updates as they become available," said an update from the county.
Climate change has lengthened the state's fire season, said Jennifer Balch, a fire researcher and director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder. And 2021 was an unusually dry year.
"Climate change is essentially keeping our fuels drier longer. These grasses that were burning — they've been baked all fall and all winter. On top of that, we didn't get a lick of moisture," Balch said.
In Denver, snow typically falls for the first time in October. But this year, the city recorded no snow until 0.3 inches fell in mid-December — smashing the previous record of Nov. 21, which was set in 1934.
The snowfall on Friday and Saturday blanketed much of the state, with roughly 5 inches in Denver and nearly a foot in Boulder.
That may 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 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 up enough to help squash any further issues," he said.
James Doubek contributed reporting.