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Wind-fueled wildfires force Coloradans out of their homes

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Colorado is entering the new year under a state of emergency. The state's governor made that declaration after wildfires fanned by gusts of wind tore through suburbs northwest of Denver. Those winds reached more than 100 miles per hour. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, and at least 580 homes are gone.

Colorado Public Radio's Sam Brasch has been out covering the fires and joins us now. Good morning, Sam.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MCCAMMON: Can you just start by telling us where you've been and give us a sense of what you've been seeing over these past 24 hours or so?

BRASCH: You bet. I think the most shocking part here is just the setting. This is not forest and mountain towns. It is in suburbs. Those winds you mentioned drove these rapid grass fires through Superior and Louisville, a couple of towns north of Denver. And these are normal neighborhoods with more than 20,000 people. Think houses and apartments and strip malls. Authorities completely evacuated both towns, which gridlocked the main routes out. I watched people drive through parking lots and over bike paths, even, to get out.

And when the fire did arrive, it burned down entire cul-de-sacs, not to mention a Target and a hotel. And so many people are still unsure about what happened to their homes. I met Anna Shurshmiva (ph) at an emergency shelter just as she received a video from a neighbor showing part of her neighborhood in flames.

ANNA SHURSHMIVA: That's my house. I know exactly that's my house. And it's still - and it's still good. But I have no idea what's going on right now because maybe it's from couple of hours ago.

BRASCH: She's a Russian immigrant, and before she evacuated, she managed to grab just a pair of clothes and her naturalization papers.

MCCAMMON: And, Sam, what is known about how these fires might've started?

BRASCH: So Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle confirmed that the high winds knocked down many power lines in the area. Early evidence suggests that those may have sparked the fires, and they took off amid high winds and these super-dry conditions we're seeing in Colorado. Authorities claim the blaze consumed the length of entire football fields in seconds as it advanced over grasslands and through these towns.

MCCAMMON: And we've talked about just widespread damage in the Denver area, people forced from their homes - tens of thousands of people. What about injuries or fatalities, Sam?

BRASCH: It's not very clear right now. A spokesman at a hospital in the area told us six people were taken for treatment related to the fires, though we're not sure what kind of injuries they have. And we've heard from a different hospital in the area that they evacuated patients, starting with those in critical care. Yesterday, Sheriff Pelle said that he wouldn't be surprised if there were more injuries or fatalities, given how quickly the fire spread. Emergency officials are hoping to make a better damage assessment as soon as things calm down.

MCCAMMON: You know, wildfire in the West is something we think about a lot and hear about a lot in the warmer months. But I think when people think of Colorado in December - I know I think of snow, you know, over those mountaintops.

BRASCH: Yeah.

MCCAMMON: Wildfire sounds out of place this time of year. Is it?

BRASCH: It absolutely is. It's been an exceptionally dry winter in Colorado. You know, and in recent years, we've seen the fire season become a year-round event. All of Colorado is currently in a moderate drought or worse, and more than two-thirds of the state is in a severe drought, especially in the populated areas east of the mountains where these fires are happening. We've barely seen any snow at all this year, which is extremely, extremely uncommon. And all that dry weather and high winds have made these winter wildfires more likely in Colorado, and that's a pattern likely to become more frequent due to climate change.

MCCAMMON: That's Colorado Public Radio's Sam Brasch, reporting from Denver. Sam, thanks for your reporting.

BRASCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.