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Wind-whipped wildfires in Colorado force 2 towns to evacuate

Patty Nieberg
Associated Press

Denver — Thousands of residents in two communities near Denver were ordered to evacuate Thursday because of a wind-fueled wildfire that engulfed parts of the area in smoky, orangish skies.

The city of Louisville, which has a population of about 21,000, was ordered to evacuate after residents in Superior, which has 13,000 residents, were told to leave. The neighboring towns are roughly 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Denver.

Firefighters spray water on a structure fire as a wildfire burns, Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in Superior, Colo. Thousands of residents in Superior and Louisville, two communities near Denver, were ordered to evacuate Thursday because of a wind-fueled wildfire that engulfed parts of the area in smoky, orangish skies.

The blaze was one of several that started in the area Thursday, at least some sparked by downed power lines, as winds gusted up to 105 mph (169 kph), according to the National Weather Service.

Videos taken by residents showed buildings on fire, though officials had yet to provide any information. They were scheduled to speak at a news briefing Thursday evening

Six people who were injured in the fires were being treated at UCHealth Broomfield Hospital, spokesperson Kelli Christensen said. A nearby portion of U.S. Highway 36 also was shut down.

Colorado’s Front Range, where most of the state’s population lives, had an extremely dry and mild fall, and winter so far has continued to be mostly dry. Snow was expected Friday in the region though.

One video captured by a bystander outside a Superior Costco store showed an apocalyptic scene with winds whipping through barren trees in the parking lot surrounded by gray skies, a hazy sun and small fires scattered across the ground.

Smoke from wildfires rises into the air north of Denver on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021. Thousands of residents in two communities near Denver were ordered to evacuate Thursday because of wind-fueled wildfire that engulfed parts of the area in smoky, orangish skies.

Leah Angstman and her husband saw similar dark skies while returning to their Louisville home from Denver International Airport after being away for the holidays. As they were sitting on the bus going toward Boulder, Angstman recalled instantly leaving clear blue skies and entering clouds of brown and yellow smoke.

“The wind rocked the bus so hard that I thought the bus would tip,” she wrote in a message to The Associated Press.

The visibility was so poor that the bus had to pull over and they waited a half-hour until a regional transit authority van escorted them to a turnaround on the highway. There she saw four separate fires burning in bushes across the freeway, she said.

“The sky was dark, dark brown, and the dirt was blowing in swirls across the sidewalk like snakes,” she said.

Angstman later ended up evacuating, getting in a car with her husband and driving northeast without knowing where they would end up.

A Brookfield Police officer directs motorists along Flatiron Crossing Drive by the Flatiron Crossing Mall as wildfires burned near the shopping center Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, near Broomfield, Colo. Homes surrounding the mall were being evacuated as wildfires raced through the grasslands as high winds raked the intermountain West.

Vignesh Kasinath, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado in Boulder, evacuated from a neighborhood in Superior with his wife and her parents. Kasinath said the family was overwhelmed because of the sudden evacuation warning and anxious from the chaos while trying to leave.

“It’s only because I am active on Twitter I came to know about this,” said Kasinath, who said he did not receive an official evacuation notice from authorities.

The fires prompted Gov. Jared Polis to declare a state of a emergency, allowing the state to access disaster emergency funds.

The evacuations come as climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, scientists say. A historic drought and heat waves have made wildfires harder to fight in the U.S. West.