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Rep. Joe Neguse says wildfires consumed neighborhoods with 'unprecedented' speed

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In just a day, a wind-fueled wildfire has become the most destructive in Colorado's history. Gusts of 100 mph pushed the fast-moving Marshall fire through the suburbs outside Denver yesterday. The flames forced about 30,000 people to evacuate and destroyed at least 500 homes. In a press conference today, Colorado Governor Jared Polis described the horror people faced.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

JARED POLIS: This was a disaster in fast motion all over the course of half a day - nearly all the damage - many families having minutes, minutes, to get whatever they could - their pets, their kids - into the car and leave. The last 24 hours have been devastating.

KELLY: Democratic Congressman Joe Neguse represents the region destroyed by the fires. He toured the area this afternoon. And we have caught him at an evacuation center in Lafayette, Colo. Congressman, welcome.

JOE NEGUSE: Good evening. I mean, good afternoon, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Yeah. Sounds like you've already had quite a day. And it sounds like you're right there with some of these people who've had minutes to scramble their whole life, get into a car and run?

NEGUSE: I am.

KELLY: Yeah.

NEGUSE: As the governor said, yesterday was just a devastating day for Boulder County and for our community. The fires have created a level of devastation that we just have never seen before in an urban setting and have fires that moved through local neighborhoods with a speed and a magnitude that is just unprecedented.

KELLY: Tell me a little bit just what you saw as you drove around this afternoon.

NEGUSE: Well, there are entire subdivisions, entire neighborhoods that have tragically been wiped out; many residents, constituents, neighbors who I've spoken with today and last night at the various evacuation centers who literally have lost everything - all their belongings, their home - and had more than a moment's notice, essentially, to flee their homes, some in - with only the clothes on their back because of the way that these flames metastasized because of hurricane winds that our community was experiencing yesterday. So just unprecedented devastation. And it's going to be a long road to recovery for our community.

KELLY: Yeah. And have you learned any more about what sparked this? We were hearing earlier today from officials talking about downed power lines where the fire started and that that might have been the spark.

NEGUSE: We have not. Early reports indicated what you described, but law enforcement is still very much investigating that.

KELLY: Yeah.

NEGUSE: I suspect that we'll know more in the coming days.

KELLY: Well, tell us more. Just paint us a picture of what you see right now. What's the setup? Who all is there at this evacuation center?

NEGUSE: Here, there are about 150 families that spent the night last night. We are working now to assist families to ultimately secure temporary housing, short-term housing, in particular for those who have lost their homes. The evacuation orders are still in place for upwards of almost 40,000 people across two different cities, Superior and Louisville. So it is a Herculean task. And we're just grateful for the work of local officials, state officials and, of course, the firefighters and the first responders, the police officers who literally worked through the night last night to save lives and save communities.

KELLY: Well, and to pile misery on top of misery, this is, of course, happening in the midst of a COVID surge. How do you safely set up an evacuation center for people who may or may not have a home to go back to when COVID is surging in the state?

NEGUSE: It has been difficult. We are lucky to have the assistance of medical professionals here in our community. As you may know, we ultimately had to evacuate multiple hospitals yesterday, but thankfully, none of the hospitals sustained significant damage. And so at this point, it's working with the medical professionals here in the community to ensure that folks are being cared for in a way that, you know, does what we can to stop the virus from spreading.

KELLY: Yeah. Are there enough hospital beds at this point?

NEGUSE: There are, yes.

KELLY: OK. And I heard y'all got some snow. Is there any relief in sight?

NEGUSE: Yes. The good news is that the snow has finally come - started to come down. We were praying for it to come. It couldn't come soon enough. The fire now will be largely contained throughout the course of today. But as I said, the, you know, reality of so many homes lost and so much devastation left in its wake means that it's going to be a long road to recovery notwithstanding the snow that we're so grateful to have received here in the last few hours.

KELLY: Yeah. That is Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat, speaking to us from an evacuation center there filled with people who have had to flee fires in Colorado. Congressman, thanks for taking the time. We wish you and your state well as y'all move through this.

NEGUSE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.