What to know about destructive Marshall Fire in Colorado

Colorado’s Marshall Fire that ripped through the Front Range between Denver and Boulder on Thursday, Dec. 30 is now the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, authorities say.

Fueled by high winds and dry conditions, the event, involving two separate fires, forced tens of thousands of residents to flee their homes as flames spread rapidly east through the towns of Superior and Louisville in Boulder County.

Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency on Dec. 30, opening up disaster emergency funds to support response efforts and resources needed to quell the blaze, including the Colorado National Guard, Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control and activation of the State Emergency Operations Center.

The first fire, called the Middle Fork Fire, erupted at the intersection of the North Foothills Highway and Middle Fork Road just before 10:30 a.m. and “was attacked pretty quickly,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said Dec. 30 during a news conference. No structures were reported damaged as a result of this event.

The Marshall Fire, the second one to spark, flared just after 11 a.m. at South Foothills and Marshall Road, quickly spreading east over 6,000 acres.

Some areas remain under an evacuation order as of Friday morning, Dec. 31, as snow started to fall in the area. Authorities said during a Friday news conference that the weather suggests the fire shouldn’t bring any more negative impacts on the area.

Officials are warning residents on Facebook to avoid the regions under evacuation because of active fires and risks.

Just last summer, Colorado experienced the three largest wildfires in the state’s history, the top two burning nearly or above 200,000 acres of land. Although the Marshall Fire only covered about 1,600 acres as of Thursday night, it attacked a heavily populated area, making it the most destructive one yet.

“So, 1,600 acres near a population center can be, and is in this case, absolutely devastating,” Polis said during the Dec. 30 news conference. “[Wind] gusts of 100-110 mph can and have moved this fire down a football field in a matter of seconds,” giving residents “very little time to get out” and gather important items from their home.

Here’s a glimpse of what the devastation looks like.

Has the Marshall Fire caused injuries or deaths?

Pelle noted there was only one reported injury to an officer’s eye due to debris flying in the wind as of the evening of Dec. 30.

Another six people were reported injured as of Friday morning, Dec. 31, the Associated Press reported.

“I’d like to emphasize that due to the magnitude of this fire, the intensity of this fire and its presence in such a heavily populated area, we would not be surprised if there are injuries or fatalities,” Pelle said Thursday evening.

There haven’t been any reported missing people as of 10 a.m. Friday, authorities said during the Dec. 31 news conference. One woman who was reported missing Thursday night has been found.

“It’s unbelievable when you look at the devastation we don’t have a list” of missing persons, Pelle said.

What has been damaged in the Marshall Fire?

As of the morning of Friday, Dec. 31, at least 580 homes have been destroyed in Boulder County, according to the Weather Channel.

The Marshall Fire has also damaged a Target shopping center and hotel.

How many people had to evacuate because of the Marshall Fire?

About 30,000 people were forced to evacuate once the Marshall Fire quickly gained speed, multiple news outlets report, a worrisome number given the COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying in the state and country.

Pelle said evacuees who are COVID-19 positive were asked to go to a COVID-19 Recovery Center to avoid infecting others.

How fast were the Marshall Fire winds?

Authorities said the winds reached up to 110 mph, which is roughly equal to a Category 2 or 3 hurricane.

Flames aside, the wind alone has the power to tear roofs off homes and businesses, uproot trees and cause “near-total power loss” that could last several days to weeks, according to the National Hurricane Center.

“The wind rocked the bus so hard that I thought the bus would tip,” Leah Angstman, who lives in Louisville, told the Associated Press of her bus trip back home from Denver International Airport. “The sky was dark, dark brown, and the dirt was blowing in swirls across the sidewalk like snakes.”

What caused the Colorado wildfires?

The Boulder County Sheriff office tweeted Dec. 30 that there were “multiple reports of powerlines down, transformers blowing, etc.” that have caused “several small grass fires.”

During a Friday, Dec. 31 news conference, authorities said the origin of the fire has not been confirmed, but downed powerlines are still the expected cause.

The state’s extremely dry conditions only made matters worse, and continue to do so.

Before a Dec. 10 storm, Denver set a record for the “most consecutive days without snow,” according to the AP.

Nationwide, climate change is fueling stronger wildfires that occur more frequently and span across more land.

This story was originally published December 31, 2021 11:51 AM.

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Katie Camero is a McClatchy National Real-Time Science reporter. She’s an alumna of Boston University and has reported for the Wall Street Journal, Science, and The Boston Globe.

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