‘It felt like the apocalypse’: Colorado wildfires destroyed hundreds of homes.

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The authorities are urging tens of thousands of people across parts of Boulder County, Colo., to leave as quickly as possible as the grassfires continue to burn.CreditCredit…Trevor Hughes/USA Today Network via Reuters

Colorado officials continued to assess the damage on Friday from a wind-swept wildfire that tore through suburban neighborhoods between Denver and Boulder the prior afternoon. The fire, which forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate and which turned the sky into an ashy orange, was estimated to have burned more than 500 homes, more than any other blaze in the state’s history.

The fire, as intense as it was sudden, sent residents of Boulder County scrambling to leave department stores and houses on Thursday as fire trucks swarmed the area. Though wildfires are seen as less of a threat in suburban areas, especially in December, a period of intense drought had created the conditions for the flames to spread, destroying houses, a shopping complex and a hotel.

“It felt like the apocalypse,” said Ruthie Werner, a resident of Louisville, Colo., who had gone to shop at a Target store but arrived to find the parking lot ablaze.

Residents of Louisville and Superior had been ordered to evacuate on Thursday, along with some people in nearby Broomfield and Westminster. There were no immediate reports of deaths or serious injuries, but Sheriff Joe Pelle of Boulder County said Thursday that he would not be surprised if victims were discovered. The authorities were expected to provide an update later Friday.

“This fire is, frankly, a force of nature,” Gov. Jared Polis said Thursday, adding that wind gusts of up to 110 miles per hour had pushed the fires with astonishing speed across suburban subdivisions. “For those who have lost everything that they’ve had, know that we will be there for you to help rebuild your lives.”

Evacuees fled the fire zones under plumes of smoke that clouded the sky for miles on Thursday, not knowing if their houses would make it through the night. Roads and highways in the Denver metro area were jammed with thousands of residents trying to flee.

“It took us almost an hour to get out of our neighborhood — it was complete gridlock,” said John Stein, who was walking his dog in Superior when he saw smoke in the area and heard sirens.

Thomas Maxwell, 25, said he did not know on Thursday if his parents’ house in Louisville was still standing. Mr. Maxwell, who lives in California, had been dog-sitting for them while they vacationed in Spain. He woke them with a midnight call to say that he had evacuated to a hotel with their two dogs.

“It was crazy how fast it happened,” Maxwell said. “I read about wildfires in California all the time. Now I’m experiencing it. It’s so different.”

Wildfires in the American West have been worsening — growing larger, spreading faster and reaching into mountainous elevations that were once too wet and cool to have supported fierce fires. What was once a seasonal phenomenon has become a year-round menace, with fires burning later into the fall and into the winter.

Recent research has suggested that heat and dryness associated with global warming are major reasons for the increase in bigger and stronger fires, as rainfall patterns have been disrupted, snow melts earlier and meadows and forests are scorched into kindling.

Colorado had the three largest wildfires in its history in the summer of 2020, each one burning more than 200,000 acres, Mr. Polis said. But those fires burned federally owned forests and land, he said, while the fires on Thursday destroyed suburban developments and shopping plazas.

“As a millennial, I’m just looking outside and I’m seeing climate change,” said Angelica Kalika, 36, of Broomfield. “I’m seeing my future. I grew up in Colorado, and this is a place where I’ve had snowy Christmases and a nice 60-degree summer. But, for me, this is a moment of deep reckoning of climate change when there is a wildfire outside my door.”

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Tens of thousands of residents of two communities in Boulder County, Colo., were ordered to evacuate because of wildfires driven by strong winds.CreditCredit…David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Ruthie Werner, 45, an artist and designer who lives in Louisville, Colo., had been quarantining with her family after her husband contracted Covid-19.

But on Thursday, after she and her son and daughter tested negative, they decided to drive to Target to do some Christmas returns and shake off their cabin fever.

When they got there, the parking lot was in flames. Smoke was staining the air, and every small patch of grass or vegetation Ms. Werner could see was ablaze.

“It felt like the apocalypse,” Ms. Werner said.

They drove back home and quickly decided to pack up even before the mandatory evacuations came down. Her children grabbed a few Christmas gifts, and her daughter grabbed a painting of their old family dog. And they bolted for a hotel as far from the smoke and flames as they could.

“We just wanted to get out of the smoke,” Ms. Werner said. “We couldn’t breathe. Our eyes were watering. My daughter kept saying her eyes were hurting.”

They and neighbors were checking in on their homes remotely through doorbell cameras, and Ms. Werner said her family’s house still appeared to be standing on Thursday evening. But other neighbors had watched through security cameras as flames swallowed up their houses.

“If the wind could just stop,” she said from the airport hotel room where she and her family is spending the night.

But the images of billowing smoke on the television suggested it still was not slowing down.

For shoppers in nearby Superior, a Costco run also turned into an evacuation as flames came dangerously close to the store around noon on Thursday.

Robert Gutierrez, 20, had seen smoke billowing on his way to the Costco, but the fire had not reached the store yet, he said. However, five minutes into his shopping trip, the shoppers were asked to evacuate.

He could barely see through the smoke as he drove away, he said, when a truck driver coming in the opposite direction gestured at him to turn around. As he did, a trail of flames tore through the road just in front of his car and reached his windshield.

“Thankfully, I exited out,” he said.

Alyssa Lukpat contributed reporting.

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Authorities have announced an evacuation order for parts of Boulder County, Colo., urging residents to leave quickly.CreditCredit…Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

While the threat of wildfires looms as a constant threat over Western mountain towns and homes tucked into the woods, people who fled the smoke and flying embers on Thursday were astonished at how the fast-moving blazes had raged through their suburban neighborhoods.

“When does this happen in such a suburban area?” asked Alli Bowdey, a nurse who left her home in the Boulder suburb of Louisville and packed into a friend’s house with other evacuated family members. “We grew up with friends losing their homes in the mountains. What happens here? Nothing.”

But wildfires in the American West have been worsening — growing larger, spreading faster and reaching into mountainous elevations that were once too wet and cool to have supported fierce fires. What was once a seasonal phenomenon has become a year-round menace, with fires burning later into the fall and into the winter.

Recent research has suggested that heat and dryness associated with global warming are major reasons for the increase in bigger and stronger fires, as rainfall patterns have been disrupted, snow melts earlier and meadows and forests are scorched into kindling.

Colorado had the three largest wildfires in its history in the summer of 2020, each one burning more than 200,000 acres, Gov. Jared Polis said. But those fires burned federally owned forests and land, he said, while the fires on Thursday destroyed suburban subdevelopments and shopping plazas.

“As a millennial, I’m just looking outside and I’m seeing climate change,” said Angelica Kalika, 36, of Broomfield. “I’m seeing my future. I grew up in Colorado, and this is a place where I’ve had snowy Christmases and a nice 60-degree summer. But, for me, this is a moment of deep reckoning of climate change when there is a wildfire outside my door.”

Across the Boulder area, displaced neighbors pored over the news for updates on whether their homes had survived and compared notes on businesses where they had seen fires scorching parking lots and approaching buildings. A city recreation center. A Chuck E. Cheese. A grocery store.

Normally, businesses like these, surrounded by asphalt and concrete, are protected from wildfires. But weeks of warm, dry weather that stretched from the autumn through December turned communities across the plains of Colorado into a wintertime tinderbox, and the frenzied winds on Thursday created a firestorm that left few places safe.

“It’s popping up all over the place,” Ms. Bowdey said. “These embers are flying all over the place. It’s a shock to everybody. Nobody wakes up planning for this.”

At about 5:30 p.m., she said she got an update from a neighbor. The fire was now two blocks away from their home.

The residents of Superior, Colo., were ordered to evacuate Thursday.Credit…David Zelio/Associated Press

The fast-moving wildfires in Colorado on Thursday that forced tens of thousands of people to flee and destroyed hundreds of homes were a sobering reminder that wildfires have become a year-round phenomenon in the American West.

It is never too early to plan for a potential evacuation, even if you are not in an area immediately affected by smoke or flames. Wildfires can spread very quickly, move erratically and travel great distances — especially when driven by the wind, as Thursday’s fires were, experts say.

Here are some suggestions to prepare for such an emergency.

Before the fire

Make a plan. Families should set a meeting point in case they get separated and map at least two evacuation routes.

Prepare an emergency supply kit. Think beyond a flashlight, batteries, and food and water. Cal Fire, the firefighting agency in California, a state that records thousands of wildfires a year, recommends gathering a three-day supply of nonperishable food and three gallons of water per person. Also pack a change of clothes, prescription medications and extra eyeglasses or contact lenses. If you have pets, do not forget about pet food and medication.

Keep important documents together. Gather birth certificates, property titles, insurance records and other crucial paperwork. In addition to being difficult to replace, some of the documents could be needed to file claims after the fire.

When the fire approaches

Prepare your home. If you have time, move flammable items like wood piles, brush and propane tanks at least 30 feet away from your house. Shut all windows and doors, but leave them unlocked once you evacuate, so firefighters can get in. Turn on outdoor lights so firefighters can see the house through the smoke. Shut off the gas at the meter, and turn off the air-conditioning.

Fuel up. Keep the family car topped off with gas to avoid any delays.

Go to the ATM. Cash is key after emergencies. Keep your credit cards handy, too.

Tune in to local media. There is no better source for information on evacuation orders, routes and shelters, said Brandi Richard, public affairs officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Monitoring their websites is really important, because as things come in, they’re sharing them on social media.”

Once you decide to evacuate

You do not need to wait for an order. This is especially true in densely populated areas where there may be traffic jams.

Pack a “go bag.” Make sure you have the essentials, especially if you can’t get to your emergency supply kit. Denver’s Office of Emergency Management suggests you pack the following: medicine, important documents, clothes, cash, a blanket, face masks, hand sanitizer water and snacks.

Grab your electronics. Cellphones, personal computers, backup hard drives and chargers should all go into the car, along with the emergency kit, personal documents, family keepsakes, cash and credit cards.

Don’t forget the pets. They will be scared.

Be smart in the car. Close your windows and use recirculated air-conditioning. Tune in to local radio to hear about safe routes.

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