LOUISVILLE, Colo. (AP) — Colorado firefighters boxed in the winter wildfire that destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and other structures to keep it from spreading as high winds raked the area Tuesday, dousing smoldering hot spots to ensure residents didn't have to flee again.
About 200 firefighters on patrol tamped down embers in blackened homes and surrounding tinder-dry grassland as winds reaching 60 mph (96 kph) descended from the Rocky Mountains into the suburban areas affected by the wildfire between Denver and Boulder.
“Our crews were able to quickly deal with those issues as they popped up," said Mike DeFries, spokesman for an incident management team in charge of the fire’s suppression in Boulder County. “We continue to patrol and while the entire fire area is contained, the damage is so extensive that it's possible we'll continue to find heat as we do our patrols."
DeFries emphasized Tuesday's weather was no match for the 100-mph (160-kph) winds that whipped last Thursday's fire, which burned 9.4 square miles (24.3 square kilometers) and forced tens of thousands of residents to evacuate. The blaze erupted during a months-long drought in the Denver metropolitan area. Experts say similar events will become more common as climate change warms the planet and suburbs grow in fire-prone areas.
Despite a snowstorm last weekend that dampened the blaze, firefighters went door to door Tuesday looking for smoldering that could cause flareups as winds reached 30 mph (48 kph), with gusts up to 60 mph (96 kph).
Two people were still missing on Tuesday, and crews sifted the locations where they lived by hand to search for any remains.
More evacuees returned to their homes in hard-hit communities like Superior and Louisville as disaster aid ramped up. Xcel Energy said it had restored electricity to customers whose properties could accept power and had resumed gas service to more than 10,000 customers. Federal, state and local agencies and nonprofits offered housing assistance, counseling, food, stipends and other aid to residents.
Karen England Horan sifted through the remains of her Louisville condo, hoping to find jewelry and family heirlooms. With the help of her son and a group of firefighters who stopped by, the 62-year-old who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did find a rock collection she said she’s gathered for decades.
“I would love to find my mother’s diamond wedding rings and my grandmother’s wedding rings. And, you know, just some jewelry, but I really don’t think it would ever be possible, so I really don’t hope to have anything," Horan said.
“I would love to stay here," Horan added. “I would love to have it rebuilt as long as I could afford it. I have a mortgage, you know, and I had my life planned until I retire, which could be any day. But it won’t be now.”
Word on the fire's cause could take weeks, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle has warned.
Federal and state investigators have interviewed dozens of people, and their efforts are focused on an area near Boulder where a passer-by captured video of a burning shed on the day the fire began.
Authorities have said that no downed power lines were found in the area known as Marshall Mesa, which lies near the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills and overlooks more heavily populated suburbs that were devastated by the fire.
Pelle said part of the investigation in the area where they think the fire started includes property occupied by members of The Twelve Tribes, a Christian religious community founded by a Tennessee high school teacher in the 1970s that is thought to have 2,000 to 3,000 members worldwide. But Pelle said when asked about it at a Monday news briefing that the group isn’t the only focus of the investigation, which hasn’t yet honed in on a suspected cause.
Twelve Tribes didn’t respond to a voicemail and email sent Monday by The Associated Press to a number and email listed on the group’s website. A man who answered a different phone number affiliated with the group said Tuesday nobody is authorized to speak for the organization and declined to identify himself.
In Louisville, Michael Goodyear pointed to dozens of neighbors’ homes that had been destroyed and said he had “just no words, just sadness."
“I think a lot of us who survived feel some guilt for even having anything,” Goodyear said. “It’s going to be a long process, but it’s a lot of pain and sadness and gratefulness at the same time.”
Haven Daley, The Associated Press