Investigators looking for the cause of the Colorado wild fire that destroyed nearly 1,000 homes have narrowed their search to a sparsely populated neighbourhood near Boulder where a passer-by captured video of a burning shed on the day the fire began, authorities said.
“The fire originated somewhere in that neighbourhood,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle told a news briefing Sunday. He said authorities did not know whether the burning shed started the larger fire or whether the shed caught fire as a result of other flames.
Experts say the winter fire was rare but that similar event will become more common as climate change warms the planet and suburbs grow in fire-prone areas. The inferno broke out unusually late in the year following months of drought that included a dry fall and a winter with hardly any snow so far.
No downed power lines were found in the area being investigated, according to the county’s Office of Emergency Management.
Meanwhile, teams continued searching Monday for two people who were still missing, and survivors sorted through the charred remnants of their homes to find whatever was left.
The Boulder County area known as Marshall Mesa is near the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills and overlooks the more heavily populated suburbs to the east that were devastated by the fast-moving fire, which was whipped up by furious winds blowing from the foothills to the west. The area is surrounded by tinder-dry public open space and private grasslands.
Over the weekend, authorities executed a search warrant, but the sheriff declined to elaborate and did not comment on whether he thought the fire was arson.
But a sheriff’s official who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed that several properties were under investigation, including one in the Marshall Mesa area, about 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) west of the hard-hit town of Superior. A National Guard Humvee blocked access to the property.
In the search for the missing, crews were looking for a woman in the town of Superior and a man from the nearby community of Marshall. Other investigators were trying to determine if the missing might have made it out but did not contact their families or friends, Pelle said.
Rex and Barba Hickman went through the ashes of their Louisville home with their son and his wife.
Their son Austin cut a safe open with a grinding tool to reveal gold and silver coins, melted credit cards, keys and the charred remains of the couple’s passports.
They had evacuated with their dog, their iPads and the clothes on their back, and Rex Hickman said he was heartbroken to discover that there was nothing left of their home of 23 years.
“There’s a numbness that hits you first. You know, kind of like you go into crisis mode. You think about what you can do, what you can’t do,” he said. “The real pain is going to sink in overtime.”
The couple have to find a rental property and clothes in the short term, and their insurance company told them Sunday it would take at least two years to rebuild their home.
“We know how fortunate we are,” Rex Hickman said. “We have each other. We have great friends, wonderful family. So many people have got to be suffering much more than we are, and we feel for them.”
While homes that burned to the foundations were still smouldering in some places, the blaze was no longer considered an immediate threat — especially with frigid temperatures and a blanket of snow that fell Saturday.
Most of the 991 buildings destroyed by the fire were homes. But the blaze also burned through eight businesses at a shopping center in Louisville, including a nail salon and a Subway restaurant. In neighbouring Superior, 12 businesses were damaged, including a Target, a Chuck E. Cheese pizzeria, a Tesla car dealership, a hotel and the town hall.
The two towns are about 20 miles (30 kilometres) northwest of Denver and have a combined population of 34,000.
The Boulder Valley School District, which serves the wildfire area, planned to resume classes as scheduled on Wednesday and to provide counselling services for students and staff affected by the flames. The University of Colorado in Boulder delayed in-person classes to Jan. 24, with remote learning starting Jan. 10.
The flames stopped about 100 yards (90 meters) from Susan Hill’s property in Louisville. She slept Saturday night in her home using a space heater and hot water bottles to keep warm because her natural gas service was still off.
She choked up as she remembered seeing the sky change colour and nervously fleeing with her college-age son and the dog, cat and a firebox with birth certificates and other documents.
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” she said. “It’s so sad. It’s so awful. It’s just devastating.”
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