BOULDER, Colo. – David Myers knew it was time to leave when he looked out into the forest and spotted bright red flames towering skyward. Then came a blinding cloud of smoke and a deafening roar as the fire ripped through the wilderness.
“You can hear just this consumption of fuel, just crackling and burning. And the hardest thing is … you couldn’t see it because at the point the smoke was that thick,” he said.
Myers was among about 3,500 people who desperately fled the fire after it erupted in a tinder-dry canyon northwest of Boulder on Monday and swallowed up dozens of homes. Residents packed everything they could into their cars and sped down narrow, winding roads to safety, encountering a vicious firestorm that melted the bumper of one couple’s van.
Myers said Tuesday afternoon that people told him they believed his house was destroyed. Authorities said they have counted at least 63 structures that have been lost based on a survey of half the area burned. It’s unclear how many were homes.
Gov. Bill Ritter declared a state of emergency Tuesday as officials nearly doubled the fire’s estimated size to more than 7,100 acres, or 11 square miles, after better mapping. At one point, the plume from the fire could be seen in Wyoming, 90 miles to the north.
Authorities investigated reports that the fire started when a car crashed into a propane tank. They are also trying to figure out why an automated phone alert system failed for two hours during the evacuation, forcing authorities to go door-to-door to search for people in harm’s way.
The fire caused no known injuries as residents appeared to get out of the area in time. But many spent Tuesday in shelters wondering if their homes still existed. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said nine volunteer firefighters were among those who lost their homes.
Winds pushed the fire through three canyons where disease, drought and beetles that burrow under the bark have killed pine trees. The so-called bark beetles have killed more than 3.5 million acres of trees in Colorado and southeastern Wyoming, and the dead trees are seen as a significant wildfire threat.
Gusty winds hampered firefighting Monday, and a squadron of firefighting planes was grounded much of the day Tuesday because smoke covered the canyonlands and obscured targets. A mix of cold and warm air sandwiched smoke over the area, but eight tankers were cleared to take off later in the day after the inversion began to clear.
At least 200 firefighters, including crews from Wyoming and outside the region, were battling the wildfire. Crews managed to save the historic town of Gold Hill, including an Old West grocery store and structures once used for stagecoach stops.
Though westerly dry winds that spread the blaze Monday had eased Tuesday, authorities would not say whether fire lines had been established or speak about the prospect of containing the fire. Boulder County sheriff’s Cmdr. Rich Brough said he didn’t have that information, frustrating dozens of evacuees who sought refuge in Boulder.
“There’s no information about anything. … I am so frustrated,” said Ronda Plywaski, who fled her home with her husband and their two German shepherds and spent the night at an evacuation center at the University of Colorado. “I just want to know if my house is OK.”
Closer to the fire, some people were seen crossing unmanned road checkpoints to get a closer glimpse of the damage, angering local officials. Authorities say allowing citizens to travel the area’s narrow roads will impede fire crews.
“It’s important right now for people who have been evacuated to just be patient. This is a very volatile situation,” the governor said after touring the area. His disaster declaration released $5 million to fight the blaze.
It’s still not know how the alert system failed or how that affected the response.
Barb Halpin, a Boulder County spokeswoman, said the first four rounds of calls that were made through the county’s automated phone alert system targeted about 2,500 phone numbers associated with houses near the most threatened areas. Halpin said she didn’t know the exact time when the first alerts when out, only that it was immediately after the fire was first reported.
Halpin said the failures happened later in the afternoon when other areas outside the immediate vicinity of the fire were being alerted.
“It’s unfortunate that those callouts failed,” Halpin said. “We don’t know the reason. Obviously, we’re investigating.”
Halpin said sheriff’s deputies went to the areas where the notifications failed to knock on people’s doors and tell them to evacuate.
Brough also repeatedly referred residents seeking information to a county website — despite the fact some displaced residents wouldn’t have easy Internet access.
Residents gathered Tuesday at a mountain overlook to watch the yellowish-brown haze. One of them, Kirk Parker, sipped a beer on the tailgate of his Nissan pickup and spotted the roof of his home with binoculars. It wasn’t on fire.
“I think we’re safe,” Parker said.
Clark Duerr fled from his house with two dogs but left a pet python in a basement aquarium. Like many others, he said he didn’t realize the enormity of the fire until he left.
“It definitely came up on us pretty quick,” Duerr said. “There was a lot of orange smoke and a lot of frantic people.”