'It just exploded': Cameron Peak, CalWood fires drive thousands from their homes in Colorado

John Bacon, USA TODAY
·4 mins read

A Colorado wildfire had raced through more than 8,700 parched, wind-blown acres in less than 24 hours on Sunday, forcing evacuation of almost 3,000 people in Boulder County as wildfires continued to batter the state and the West.

The CalWood Fire began burning Saturday in Boulder County, about 50 miles southeast of the Cameron Peak Fire. That fire, the largest in state history, has burned more than 317 square miles since mid-August.

"It just exploded," Mike Wagner, division chief with the Boulder County Sheriff's Office, said of the CalWood fire. "We do believe multiple homes were probably lost. It's still too dynamic to get in and begin to assess."

Courtney Walsh posted three pictures of her burned-out, Boulder area home on social media.

"It's all gone," she tweeted. "I'm gutted."

Jessica Newmans posted an offer to house animals in her barn or contained pasture after her property was removed from the evacuation zone. An hour earlier she had been on the move.

"One of the first things we grabbed before mandatory evacuations hit? Our ballots," she tweeted. "Then our children & dog, guitar, and a few nice bottles of wine, of course."

Another fire that started Sunday about 20 miles northwest of Boulder had grown to more than 240 acres and led to the evacuation of three Boulder County foothill towns, officials said.

Shannon Kiss and her 14-year-old daughter thought they would have to leave their condo near Gunbarrel after smoke from the CalWood fire started seeping in, prompting them to tape up the doors and place towels and blankets on the floor.

“We went outside and the ash was hitting our face,” said Kiss, who found out Saturday they would be able to stay home. “The wind was blowing and it felt almost like a windy rain, but it was ash hitting our face.”

The cause of the fires remain under investigation. Wagner said there had been no lightning strikes or other likely weather events that could have ignited the CalWood blaze. But the region has been saddled with high winds and what fire officials termed "critically dry" conditions for weeks.

"Anyone under an Evacuation WARNING for #CalWoodFire should be ready to leave immediately," the Boulder Office of Emergency Management said on social media. "Have a bag packed & be ready to leave with very little notice. Winds on Sunday could create fast-moving fire activity."

Colorado's largest wildfire ever: These photos show the intense smoke

Wagner said efforts to combat the blaze were constrained by the weather and the lack of firefighters because of demand throughout the West. More than 60 major fires were burning in 11 Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

"We've been concerned for some time about the fire danger," Wagner said. "It has been so dry."

The Cameron Peak Fire, 62% contained Sunday, has burned more than 100 structures. The wildfire started in the high country 30 miles west of Fort Collins and continued to grow despite more than 1 foot of snow that fell on Labor Day. It broke the state's record for the largest fire last week, fanned by days of high winds.

More than a dozen fires were burning across California, which got a trace of good news over the weekend. The White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved the state's request for disaster relief funds to clean up damage from six fires. Late last week, the application has been rejected, the administration claiming California hadn’t made a strong enough case for assistance with the September fires.

The Mullen Fire in Wyoming had burned 176,386 acres as of Sunday morning in the Medicine Bow National Forest west of Laramie, home to the state's only four-year university. The blaze, which sparked Sept. 17, was 55% contained.

In Utah, two new fires were much smaller but also forced evacuations. The Range Fire had burned 3,000 acres and was not at all contained; the Fire Canyon Fire was estimated at 1,460 acres Sunday morning but only 10% contained.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colorado wildfires: Thousands flee Cameron Peak, CalWood fires