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Colorado investigators are focusing their attention on a shed fire belonging to members of a fundamentalist Christian sect, the Twelve Tribes, as they narrow down the cause of a massive wildfire that ravaged suburbs between Denver and Boulder December 30.
While the investigation unfolds, survivors struggling with devastating loss and sub-zero temperatures worry about how, and where, they might begin to rebuild their lives.
At latest report, two people remained unaccounted for in the wake of a terrifying grassfire that incinerated 991 homes across some 24 square kilometres of Boulder County in a scant few hours.
“The fire originated somewhere in that neighbourhood,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle told media Sunday. “There was a viral video that was posted of a shed on fire.”
Pelle said officials hadn’t determine whether “that shed started the fire or whether it was secondary,” adding that finding the cause of the fire “is complicated and it’s all covered with a foot of snow.”
But “we will sort it out,” he told reporters. “It’s an active, open deal and the outcome of that investigation is vital, there is so much at stake. We are going to be professional. We are going to be careful.”
The Independent cites a news report in the Denver Post of a neighbour who thought he witnessed the beginnings of the fire on the property next to his. “Mike Zoltowski said he asked three people sheltering from strong winds at a property owned by the Twelve Tribes about a small fire in a field,” the UK-based paper writes. “The religious sect reportedly denied wrongdoing, despite other accounts of illegal burnings on the same property not far from Boulder. The Twelve Tribes, started in the 1970s in Tennessee, is a fundamentalist sect which believes in a return to first-century Christianity and believes all other denominations are fallen.”
While the spark that started the blaze is still under review, the climate conditions that turned a local grassfire into a sweeping disaster are more clear. The blaze, which has displaced tens of thousands of people, “came unusually late in the year following an extremely dry fall and amid a winter nearly devoid of snow,” the Associated Press writes.
The flames, which began as separate grassfires that quickly united into one inferno, spread at “apocalyptic” speed courtesy of winds in excess of 160 kilometers per hour. Speaking at a news conference on the day the fire began, Colorado Governor Jared Polis described the wildfire chewing through football field-sized lengths of territory in a matter of seconds.
In a cruel twist of fate, snow that might have quelled the flames at the start arrived as the winds dropped, further complicating the search for the missing. Suddenly frigid temperatures are adding to the misery of those displaced, while increasing the risk of burst pipes in whatever homes still stand within evacuated areas.
One of the missing is a 91-year-old woman from Superior, a town of 13,000 located 30 kilometres northwest of Denver. Citing a local news report, the New York Times writes that a relative tried to rescue Nadine Turnbull from her home but was “turned back by flames engulfing the front and back doors.”
The other missing person is a man who lives near Marshall, a hamlet 6.5 kilometres west of Superior.
While earlier reports suggested downed power lines may have ignited the blaze, utility officials say no such ignition point has yet been found.
At last report, more than 990 buildings had been lost to the flames. Most were private homes, but some businesses have also been destroyed, including eight in a shopping centre in Louisville, a town of 18,000 located 6.5 kilometres northeast of Superior. In Superior itself, a Target department store, a Tesla dealership, and the town hall have all been damaged.
President Joe Biden has declared the area a disaster zone, a designation which will allow residents access to federal aid, writes the Times. But the present hour remains dire for locals like 83-year-old Superior resident Robert Guokas, who lives alone in a mobile home park and, at last report, was struggling to stay warm with a propane heater and a camp stove.
Both gas and power were lost to tens of thousands in the wake of the fire.
Guokas told the Times he was reluctant to go to an emergency shelter because that would mean leaving his home, which had part of its roof torn off by the heavy winds, to the mercy of winter weather conditions.
“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,” the Times writes. But with “an income of just US$1,400 a month from Social Security,” Guokas “has no idea how he would afford either.”
For those with the resources to repair and rebuild, questions are swirling about whether to do so in a place so evidently vulnerable to more of the same. “This is a new world we’re living in,” Jennifer Balch, director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, told the Times. “We need to completely rethink where homes are at risk.”
Citing state records which show all of Colorado’s 20 biggest wildfires occurring since 2001, with four of the five largest in the last four years, the Washington Post adds that “wildfires are becoming worse and, increasingly, a year-round threat” in the parched state.
Superior resident Korina Bersentes, who lost her decades-old home to the fire, is unsure whether she and her family will try 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.”
Wildfire Today points to close-packed subdivisions—with some homes no more than 20 feet apart in the worst-hit areas—as a factor that added to the intensity and speed of the fire, with convection and radiant heat from one flaming house quickly setting its neighbours ablaze.
A nighttime photo posted by CNN shows one of those homes gaily bedecked in green and red and blue and white Christmas lights, while looming immediately behind it burns an inferno of orange and black.