Tens of thousands flee as Colorado fires burn hundreds of homes – Al Jazeera English

Governor Jared Polis declares a state of emergency as the National Weather Service warns of ‘life-threatening situation’ in affected areas in US.

Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and tens of thousands evacuated in Colorado, United States, after wildfires driven by high winds engulfed two towns near the state capital, Denver.

At least one first responder and six others were injured on Thursday, though Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle acknowledged there could be more casualties due to the intensity of fires that quickly swept across the region as winds gusted up to 169 kilometers per hour (105 milers per hour)

Authorities ordered evacuations for Louisville, which has about 21,000 residents, and Superior, home to 13,000 people and a suburb of Boulder.

The neighbouring towns are roughly 32km (20 miles) northwest of Denver, a city of more than 715,000 people.

A towering plume of smoke from the wildfires was visible in Denver. Several buildings were seen burning in Superior.

Residents evacuated fairly calmly and orderly, but the winding streets in the suburban subdivisions quickly became clogged as people tried to get out. It sometimes took cars as long as 45 minutes to advance just a few hundred metres.

Structures burn as a wind-driven wildfire forced evacuation of the Superior suburb of Boulder, Colorado, on Thursday [Trevor Hughes/USA Today via Reuters]

The first fire erupted just before 10:30am and was “attacked pretty quickly and laid down later in the day and is currently being monitored” with no structures lost, Pelle said.

A second wildfire, reported just after 11am, “ballooned and spread rapidly east”, Pelle added. The blaze spans 6.5 square kilometres (2.5 square miles) and has engulfed parts of the area in smoky, orangish skies and sent residents scrambling to get to safety.

The activity of the fires, which are burning unusually late into the winter season, will depend on how the winds behave overnight and could determine when crews are able to go in and begin assessing the damage and searching for any victims.

“This is the kind of fire we can’t fight head on,” Pelle said. “We actually had deputy sheriffs and firefighters in areas that had to pull out because they just got overrun,” he added.

News reports said at least 580 homes, a hotel and a shopping centre have burned. According to the Denver Post, the fire is the most destructive in Colorado’s history in terms of the number of homes destroyed.

Governor Jared Polis declared a state of emergency to allow the use of disaster funding to support emergency response efforts and the mobilisation of the Colorado National Guard and other state resources as needed.

A nearby portion of the US highway also was reported shut down because of a fire.

The National Weather Service (NWS) said in a social media post that smaller fires were also reported in at least two areas.

The weather agency warned that the fast-moving fires were creating a “life-threatening situation” in some areas.

A mandatory evacuation has been ordered in all areas of Louisville except for two districts, according to the police department.

The extent of property losses was not immediately known, but a news station aired footage of homes engulfed in flames near Louisville.

The fires on the outskirts of the Denver metropolitan area, left bone dry from an extreme drought gripping eastern Colorado, followed several days of heavy snow in the Rocky Mountains to the west.

A house burns as a wind-driven wildfire forced evacuation of the Superior suburb of Boulder on Thursday night [Eric English/Reuters]