As of Friday there have been no casualties as the Marshall fire continues burning through southeast Boulder County, a feat Sheriff Joe Pelle and Gov. Jared Polis both called "a New Year's miracle" because of how quickly the fire moved and how little time people had to evacuate.
"That's awesome news, and, actually, given the events we had yesterday, pretty miraculous," Pelle said during a press conference Friday morning at the Boulder County Sheriff's Office headquarters.
However, as of 9 p.m. Friday, two people were unaccounted for.
Pelle also said the estimate of at least 500 homes lost remained the same Friday, but officials don't yet have an exact number of structures lost or damaged. There are about 2,000 homes in the burn area, which grew on Friday to more than 6,000 acres after the fire began around 11 a.m. Thursday at South Foothills Highway and Marshall Road.
Approximately 35,000 people from the towns of Superior and Louisville were evacuated Thursday as wildfires raged amid high winds, with some gusts over 100 miles an hour, Incident Commander Mike Smith said.
"Our first priority was life preservation," Smith said. "At certain points we could not even actively fight the fire. We just had to concentrate on getting everyone out safely."
Officials still have not determined the exact cause of the Marshall fire, which remained 0% contained Friday, Smith said. Downed powerlines were originally suspected of sparking the blaze, but Xcel Energy, a major utilities company, had inspected all their powerlines in the ignition area and found no downed powerlines, officials said. Xcel Energy crews did find some "compromised" communication lines — such as telephone, cable and internet lines — that may have been misidentified as powerlines, officials said. Communications lines typically are not the cause of a fire, they said.
On late Friday afternoon, most areas that were evacuated remained closed. At 3 p.m. officials reopened to residents only the area south of Coalton Road between Highway 128 and Rock Creek Parkway in Superior. Access is off Highway 128.
Officials also reopened to residents only the Bell Flatirons apartments in Louisville, with access off South Tyler Drive.
Power will be restored to these reopened areas, but gas will not be turned on, according to a news release from the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. Xcel Energy is distributing space heaters to those without heat at Bob L. Burger Recreation Center, 111 W. Baseline Road in Lafayette. Residents may also stop by the Red Cross shelter at the YMCA located at 2800 Dagny Way in Lafayette, or at the YWCA of Boulder County, 2222 14th St. in Boulder, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Officials ask residents to remain in their homes once they have returned to them. If emergency conditions exist, residents can call 911 to report, the release said.
The Boulder County Office of Emergency Management, which is responding to the fire, will eventually post the addresses and status of homes on its website, Pelle said, but that information won't be available for at least a day.
In the meantime, people may call 303-413-7730 for general questions and updates on neighborhoods, Pelle said. Do not call 911.
Officials urged people Friday to stay out of the evacuation areas and adhere to road closures as first responders address active hot spots, downed power lines and trees at risk of falling; conduct property searches; assess damage; and investigate the fire’s cause.
There are currently no escorted tours of the area.
The Colorado National Guard is assisting with traffic control, security operations and evacuating displaced residents after Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday declared a state of emergency due to the fire.
Incident management teams are working with utility companies to restore water and gas service to undamaged areas and turn off utilities to damaged areas, the Office of Emergency Management said, part of efforts to protect homes from freezing temperatures expected Friday night.
Xcel Energy has restored power to about 80% of affected residents in the area and worked Friday to restore power to approximately 15,000 residents still without it, the company announced on its website. Restoration could take several days, Xcel officials said.
Residents in Louisville and Superior as well as San Souci Mobile Home Park, the East Boulder County Water District and those who use Eldorado Springs water must now use bottled water or boil any water to be used for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes and preparing food until further notice, as officials said issues with water pressure could potentially contaminate the water.
During the press conference Friday, Polis called the last 24 hours "devastating" and said President Joe Biden had approved a major disaster declaration for the area.
"That means homeowners won't have to wait for official damage estimates before receiving assistance," Polis said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also authorized funds through a Fire Management Assistance Grant to help fight the devastating fires in Boulder County. Now, federal funding is available to pay for 75% of some of Colorado's firefighting costs, like expenses for field camps, equipment and tools, repair and replacement, mobilization and demobilization activities, and materials and supplies, according to the agency. The funding can also mitigate wildfire and other hazards, like flooding after a fire.
A recent analysis by The Gazette shows in the last decade, developers built tens of thousands of new homes in Colorado’s riskiest areas for wildfires, and that some of the most vulnerable areas of the state rely on some of the state’s oldest wildfire protection plans, putting those areas in peril for wildfire devastation.
U.S. Census Bureau data show in the last 10 years more than 2,000 homes — going from about 15,000 to around 17,000 homes — were built in the top 1% areas of Colorado most at risk for wildfires, using wildfire burn probability data from the U.S. Forest Service. At least one-third of those new homes are in areas without a fire mitigation plan updated in the last five years, The Gazette reported.
In the riskiest 5% of the state, more than 23,000 new homes have been built, ballooning from about 100,000 homes to around 123,000. At least 70% of those new homes are in areas with plans that haven’t been updated in five years or more.
High winds dissipated overnight and a winter storm was expected Friday to bring between 3 and 6 inches of snow to the area, which will "certainly help" response efforts, Pelle said, though it won’t be enough to completely douse the fire.
Firefighters remained on the ground Friday, though officials don’t expect the blaze to grow significantly thanks to the cooler weather conditions, he said.
The National Weather Service in Boulder estimated 1 to 2 inches of snow would fall during the day Friday, with an additional 3 to 5 inches of snow possible Friday night.
Describing the burn area as a "mosaic," Pelle said there were still areas burning but they are mostly hot zones and there were no fires visibly burning from the air.
"We see groups of smoldering spots that are all well contained," he said.
The Marshall fire could be the most destructive fire in Colorado history, in terms of homes lost, if initial estimates are correct.
The Cameron Peak fire — which in 2020 burned more than 208,000 acres and destroyed more than 460 buildings, including 246 homes — was the largest wildfire in state history.
The Black Forest fire, which sparked in El Paso County in June 2013, destroyed about 500 homes and burned more than 14,000 acres.
The Gazette's Christopher Osher, Evan Wyloge and Mary Shinn contributed to this report.