After catastrophic fire, Colorado fights a new hazard: 10 inches of snow

Just two days after they fled a firestorm, residents of two Colorado suburbs that had been gutted by flames slogged back home Saturday through nearly a foot of snow and single-digit temperatures to confront a new list of woes: frozen pipes and water damage, thanks to an abrupt turn in the weather.

>> Charlie Brennan, Jack Healy and Sophie KasakoveThe New York Times
Published : 2 Jan 2022, 01:14 PM
Updated : 2 Jan 2022, 01:14 PM

The desperately needed snow arrived too late to save 991 homes that were destroyed as a wildfire fueled by hurricane-force wind gusts roared through parched grasses and into cul-de-sacs in the suburbs of Louisville and Superior, just outside the college town of Boulder.

And in a discouraging reversal, law-enforcement officials announced Saturday that they were searching for three people feared dead inside their burned-out homes. Immediately after the fire, officials had said there were no reports of deaths. Now, with snow hindering the search efforts, Sheriff Joe Pelle of Boulder County said the county would bring in cadaver-finding dogs to search for victims.

“Potentially there are human remains in those homes,” he said. “It’s not even safe to step into the scene. We don’t know what’s underneath.”

Pelle said investigators looking into the cause of the fire had served a search warrant after receiving several tips, but he did not offer any additional details. Officials had first suggested power lines as a potential cause, but on Saturday they said they had determined there were no downed electric lines near the fire’s point of origin.

“If it turns out to be arson or reckless behavior, we’ll take appropriate actions,” Pelle said.

Family members identified one of the missing people as Nadine Turnbull, 91, telling 9News that a relative had tried to rescue her from her home in Superior only to be turned back by flames engulfing the front and back doors.

As thousands of surviving homes remained without power and gas Saturday, the 7-degree temperatures and the 10 inches of snow that fell on the Boulder area touched off a frantic new battle against the weather. It came as President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration for the fire zone, opening up new sources of federal aid.

Residents hiked into their neighborhoods to drain their pipes and empty hot-water tanks. They scrambled to set up space heaters. People on vacation hundreds of miles away pleaded for help in shutting off the water at their homes and opening up their taps to prevent a flood.

Nearly 13,000 households around Boulder were without natural gas Saturday, and 7,500 households still had no power, according to Xcel Energy, the local provider. The company said electricity would be restored later Saturday but that natural gas would take several days.

The Town of Superior said it was shutting off water in the fire zone Saturday to prevent additional damage.

“This is disappointment on disappointment,” said Alli Bowdey, a nurse whose family fled its Louisville home and was packed into a house with relatives. On top of everything else, her husband tested positive for the coronavirus and was isolating in a hotel Saturday.

“We just looked at each other in disbelief,” she said.

In the Sans Souci mobile home park, Robert Guokas, 83, was trying to stay warm with a propane heater and warming water on a camp stove as he bundled up in sleeping bags and layers of clothing collected over the years from Army surplus stores. But as much as his long-ago time as a Boy Scout had prepared him for this emergency, he was starting to run low on propane by Saturday.

“That’s going to stretch my limit,” he said, but he worried that leaving for an emergency shelter would be even worse than staying home. By staying put, he could try to minimize the damage, for instance by replacing the pots he had set up to catch the water dripping through his roof after the harsh winds on Thursday tore part of it off.

“You leave it for three or four days or a week, and it becomes a derelict — it becomes unfixable,” Guokas said.

The damage from a burst pipe could be so severe that it would be cheaper to find a new mobile home than to make repairs on his decades-old unit. But with his income of just $1,400 a month from Social Security, he has no idea how he would afford either.

As the scale of the destruction came into clearer view Saturday, thousands of displaced people across the Boulder area began to confront questions about whether they would rebuild and how they would find temporary housing in a region confronting a stark shortage of homes and an affordability crisis that has already priced many young families out of Louisville and Superior.

Even as Bowdey’s husband, a property manager, fights off COVID-19 at a hotel, he has been inundated with 200 requests for housing from families who now have no place to go, she said, adding, “It kind of hits you every so often that this is not just weeks and months — this is years.”

Clint Folsom, mayor of Superior, said finding long-term housing for so many families was the next emergency. While his home survived the fire, his 76-year-old mother’s home burned to the ground, as did two homes owned by his sister-in-law.

“We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of people who are going to need housing,” Folsom said. “That’s going to be the challenge.”

But residents said they were anxious about whether to rebuild in a suburb that felt newly vulnerable to the devastating effects of a warmer, drier climate in the Mountain West. If their suburban blocks and the neighborhood hotel and Target store were vulnerable to fires, where was safe?

“This is a new world we’re living in,” said Jennifer Balch, director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We need to completely rethink where homes are at risk.”

The community’s most urgent needs were clear Saturday in the nearby town of Lafayette, where a YMCA had been converted into a Red Cross shelter. Thirty cars idled outside the shelter in single-digit temperatures, waiting for volunteers handing out portable heaters and bottled water.

Inside were roughly 120 people who had sought shelter, many of them still unsure if their homes were standing.

Pat Wilhelm, 66, had to rebuild much of his home after a 2013 electrical fire, and as he sat inside the evacuation site, he said he was still waiting on word of whether his house had survived this blaze.

“If it’s there, it’s there,” he said. “If it’s not, you deal with it.”

Nicolas and Katie Ferrington were among the residents who had an answer. Less than a year after they had finished building their four-bedroom “forever home” on a ridge in the Spanish Hills subdivision, it was gone.

“It’s like a death,” said Katie Ferrington, 40, who owns a physical therapy business. “It’s a shock.”

The Ferringtons planned to rebuild on the same spot but were worried about what their home insurance would cover, as their policy had been tied to the lower value of a structure they had demolished to build their new home.

“We are viewing this as an opportunity to start over,” Ferrington said.

But others were still just trying to process their losses and the road ahead. The scale of the devastation did not feel real to Eric Egaas, 18, until he and his mother reached the home where the family had lived for more than two decades, having moved in as other houses in their subdivision were still being built.

By the time they got to the house, little was left apart from the patch of pavement where Egaas and his sister had pressed their hands into wet concrete as children.

His mother, Korina Bersentes, said the family had not yet decided whether to rebuild.

“I do fear that this is going to be the new norm in the West,” she said. “It’s not going to be wildfires in the mountains. It’s going to be wildfires everywhere.”

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