Firefighters gain ground on Boulder wildfire
BOULDER, Colorado ” Thousands of Boulder County residents were allowed to return to their homes Thursday after firefighters took advantage of an overnight break in furious winds to partially contain a wildfire that destroyed two houses and several outbuildings.
Crews had contained about 30 percent of the 3,700-acre fire zone about 25 miles northwest of Denver and hoped to fully encircle it later Thursday. The fire blackened mostly grassland north and west of the city of Boulder, an area of scattered subdivisions, farms and ranches along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
At least 1,300 homes were evacuated and two were destroyed, county Fire Cmdr. Phil West said. The evacuation order for 70 percent of those homes was lifted Thursday in an area east of U.S. Highway 36. The order remained in effect west of the highway, which hugs the Rocky Mountain foothills.
West estimated that within the 3,700-acre fire zone, about 1,400 acres had actually burned.
Two firefighters and a police officer sustained minor injuries.
Some 200 firefighters spent the night lighting backfires to starve the blaze. They saved several homes from destruction, said county Sheriff Joe Pelle.
“The effort to suppress this wildfire once the winds died down last night was exhausting and downright heroic,” Pelle said. “As long as the wind doesn’t come up today, I’m very confident we’ve about got this thing licked.”
The National Weather Service forecast winds of 20 mph in the area with gusts up to 40 mph through Thursday afternoon.
The cause of the fire, which started Wednesday, was under investigation, though officials believed wind gusts reaching 80 mph likely downed power lines.
A broad swath of the foothills was charred Thursday, and some wind gusts kicked up as the sun rose ” strong enough to rock cars along a mountain highway. Utility crews inspected power lines and poles as firefighters focused on protecting structures and dousing hot spots.
At a Boulder Rural Fire Protection District station north of the city, Capt. Robert O’Donnell’s crew was cleaning and folding hoses after spending 15 hours on the fire lines.
“We lost no homes, which is good. Just juniper (trees),” O’Donnell said. “(It was) jumping from to juniper to juniper. … We had the wind. That was incredible.”
“We could see the flames and the smoke was really coming down into our faces when we left,” said 56-year-old Sharon Getman, who left her home with her parents. Getman said she took bibles, pictures and two U.S. flags belonging to her grandfathers, both Army veterans. “I was scared because I didn’t know what was going to be happening and the wind was relentless.”
Few residents took advantage of two shelters opened for evacuees, choosing instead to stay with family and friends.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said that it had agreed to help pay for 75 percent of the state’s firefighting costs.
Firefighters thought they had gotten a handle on the fire late Wednesday before powerful winds pushed flames across containment lines and toward two rural neighborhoods.
“The fire was so close and all hell was breaking loose,” said Fred Anders, 66, who was at a shelter at a high school in nearby Niwot with his wife, Candace. The couple brought binoculars to keep a watch on their home.
“I won’t sleep anyway,” he said. “You can’t sleep. Get real.”
Associated Press Writer Dan Elliott contributed to this report.