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Thousands flee their homes as fast-moving winds drive wildfires in Colorado

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An estimated 580 homes have been lost as wildfires sweep across Boulder County, Colo. Winds gusting higher than a hundred miles an hour have driven the flames, and more than 20,000 people have evacuated two towns. Governor Jared Polis has declared a state of emergency.

Colorado Public Radio's Sam Brasch joins us from Broomfield, which is northwest of Denver and near the evacuated towns. Hi, Sam.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Can you just describe what you're seeing from where you are?

BRASCH: Yeah. I'm in a Starbucks parking lot about five miles south of where these fires are burning. The view to the north of me is completely clogged with dark smoke. It's moving pretty quickly. And it looks like there are a few evacuees around me, hanging out, waiting with their dogs and cats in their car. I was in Superior earlier today, one of the towns evacuated, and you can see smoke pouring over the hills above the community.

SHAPIRO: How has the evacuation gone?

BRASCH: You know, I saw people rushing to evacuate earlier today, grabbing suitcases, pet crates, loading up their cars. One complication here is the really high winds you mentioned. That's caused thousands of power outages. So some streetlights weren't working. Police were directing traffic, but some of the roads were completely clogged. And I saw, you know, people even trying to find a way out on some bike paths. I managed to get out on one of the main roads where traffic was running in both directions out of town.

SHAPIRO: Any idea how the fire started?

BRASCH: Well, what we know is from emergency managers earlier today, and they reported several fires and that the fires may have been caused by high winds knocking over power lines. The two towns that border each other in Boulder County, Superior and Louisville, are both being completely evacuated. Together, about 25,000 people call those towns home. And my colleague captured a photograph of a line of flames visible inside a residential subdivision in the Superior area.

SHAPIRO: Clearly, there's going to be a lot of loss. Any idea how many homes have been damaged?

BRASCH: Yeah, so Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle says his best estimate is that 580 homes have been lost, all in the town of Superior, and that's still a preliminary estimate. He also said a Target shopping center and a hotel burned but didn't offer any more specifics. A spokesperson 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 are evacuating, starting with patients in critical care.

Meanwhile, more than 20,000 people are without power in the area. We've also got road closures, as they're trying to keep evacuation routes open. Tractor trailers were blown over in the high winds we mentioned earlier, including a few big highways, which as you can imagine has complicated those evacuation efforts.

SHAPIRO: This is not the time of year that people think of as wildfire season. In another part of the program, we're talking about record snow in California. What's going on?

BRASCH: It's been an exceptionally dry year in Colorado. In recent years, we've seen the fire season become a year-round phenomenon. All of Colorado is currently in a moderate drought or worse. More than two-thirds of the state is under severe drought, especially in the populated areas east of the mountains, which has barely seen any snow at all this year. All the drought there and high winds have made these winter wildfires more likely in Colorado, and that's a pattern that's likely to become more frequent due to climate change.

SHAPIRO: And what are officials expecting for the next few days?

BRASCH: Well, this is where there's a little bit good news. It's supposed to be windy tonight, but forecasters are actually expecting it to snow over the next few days in Colorado, starting as early as tomorrow. So that's good, but the power outages could be problematic for people as it gets colder.

SHAPIRO: That is Colorado Public Radio reporter Sam Brasch in Broomfield, Colo. Thank you and stay safe.

BRASCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIAN KAMAE'S "WAYSIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.