SUPERIOR, Colo. — Investigators are still 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 following the inferno that broke out Thursday.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said Saturday authorities were pursuing a number of tips and had executed a search warrant at “one particular location.” He declined to give details.
A sheriff’s official who declined to provide his name confirmed one property was under investigation in Boulder County’s Marshall Mesa area, a region of open grassland about 2 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 around where the fire broke out in the area located between Denver and Boulder. The wildfire 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 from the wind-whipped wildfire is not final.
The totals include destroyed barns, outbuildings and other structures, but the vast majority were homes, Boulder County spokesperson Jennifer Churchill said late Saturday.
Authorities had said earlier no one was missing. But Churchill said that was due to confusion inherent when agencies are scrambling to manage an emergency.
Pelle said officials were organizing cadaver teams to search for the missing in the Superior area and in unincorporated Boulder County. The task is complicated by debris from destroyed structures, covered by 8 inches (20 centimeters) of snow dumped by a storm overnight, he said.
At least seven people were injured in the wildfire that erupted in and around Louisville and Superior, the neighboring towns about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Denver with a combined population of 34,000.
The blaze, which burned at least 9.4 square miles (24 square kilometers), was no longer considered an immediate threat — especially with the overnight dumping of snow and frigid temperatures Saturday.
The snow and temperatures in the single digits cast an eerie scene amid still-smoldering remains of homes. Despite the shocking change in weather, the smell of smoke still permeated empty streets blocked off 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 of people lined up to get donated space heaters, bottled water and blankets at Red Cross shelters. Xcel Energy urged other residents to use fireplaces and wood stoves to stay warm and keep their pipes at home from freezing.
Families filled a long line of cars waiting to pick up space heaters and bottled water 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 at that location 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 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) back to their home; their neighborhood was still blocked off 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, wiping away a tear.
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.”