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Colorado residents assess damage from wildfires


Officials in Colorado say more than 500 homes may have been destroyed by fires that ripped through the suburbs northwest of Denver yesterday, fires driven by winds that gusted above 100 miles an hour.

Colorado Public Radio's Michael Elizabeth Sakas is just outside the burned area in Boulder and has been talking to people who had to flee the fire. She joins us now. Hey there.


KELLY: So describe where you are and the latest with the fire itself. It's still burning.

SAKAS: Yeah. I just left a recreation center in Boulder that had been acting as an emergency shelter for evacuees who had to flee yesterday's fires. They asked the media to leave, but the shelter does remain open. There were about 20 people there when I was there.

At this point, the fires are effectively out and no longer threatening any people or structures. Boulder County sheriff says it appears there are no people missing or unaccounted for. What she said is kind of amazing given the speed at which these fires moved. More than 30,000 people had to evacuate two entire towns.

KELLY: Yeah. And what are you hearing from people there? I mean, what are people saying about this, just having to evacuate and so quickly?

SAKAS: Yeah. The fires broke out right in the middle of the day and moved so quickly that some people were in the middle of their shopping trip when they had to evacuate. I spoke with Natalie Warady, who was at a Costco picking up things she wanted to celebrate the New Year's holiday. She had noticed some smoke and wind in the distance when she first entered the store. She thought maybe it was a dust storm or a small grassfire burning nearby. And then less than 15 minutes later, Costco employees started to run around, telling people to leave.

NATALIE WARADY: I heard the people next to me saying, which way do we go? Which way do we go? And then you walked into what is this tornado of wind and smoke and ash, and you couldn't see anything. And it was shocking.

SAKAS: Warady had to abandon her cart and her New Year's treats in the store. She was terrified and disoriented as she tried to find her car in the smoke and winds, which were literally blowing big semitrucks over on the highways. And then she had to make her way out of the shopping center along with hundreds of other people all at once, so Warady was stuck in traffic. And she finally made it to her home in nearby Lafayette and started to prepare to leave there if she had to, but thankfully, the fire didn't reach her home.

KELLY: Oh, good. Well, that's one piece of good news. Did you talk to anybody who did have to evacuate their home?

SAKAS: Yeah. I spoke with Roselyn Adams, a resident of Louisville. She said she started to panic and pack a bag after noticing the smoke. She called her husband, and he made his way back home from his job in Boulder. And they evacuated their Louisville home under dark and smoky skies with their car covered in ash.

ROSELYN ADAMS: The wind was just so intense. It blew down our whole back fence. We were trying to get out of Louisville, and it was just, like, tree limbs all over the road.

SAKAS: The couple had just enough time to grab the essentials and their two dogs and cats. Adams said she could never imagine her neighborhood, just 10 minutes from Boulder, having to be evacuated due to a wildfire. She said the effects of climate change were on her mind as she fled flames in December amid long-term drought and warmer-than-normal temperatures.

KELLY: How is the weather there? - because we've heard snow is coming, which would obviously help quite a lot with the threat of further fires.

SAKAS: Yes. Thankfully, it did start to snow, which has really helped dampen these grass fires. But many people are still without power - you know, around 10,000 people, which might mean a cold night for thousands of them. And the hard part now is that all those who are evacuated and remain out of their homes don't know at this point that they'll be allowed back in or when they can go survey the damage or visit their homes that were destroyed. Officials are saying they'll allow people back in as soon as it's safe, but there's still danger from downed power lines, damaged buildings and water leaks. So there's no clear timeline for when people will be allowed back into their neighborhoods.

KELLY: That is Colorado Public Radio's Michael Elizabeth Sakas reporting from Boulder. Thank you so much for bringing us all this news tonight.

SAKAS: Yeah. Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Michael Sakas