Thousands Flee, Dozens of Homes Destroyed in Colorado Wildfire

BOULDER, Colorado -- A wind-whipped wildfire sent flames roaring through a rugged canyon in the Colorado foothills, forcing about 3,500 people to flee and destroying dozens of homes -- some that belonged to the firefighters themselves, authorities said.

Gov. Bill Ritter declared a state of emergency Tuesday as officials nearly doubled the fire's estimated size to more than 7,100 acres, or 11 square miles. At one point the plume from the fire could be seen in Wyoming, 90 miles to the north.

Authorities said Tuesday night they counted 92 structures that have been destroyed and another eight that have been damaged. A government website listed the addresses of 53 homes destroyed based on a survey of only 5 to 10 percent of the burned area.

More addresses were to be posted on the Boulder Office of Emergency Management site Wednesday.

Authorities investigated reports that the fire started when a car crashed into a propane tank. They are also trying to figure out why an automated phone alert system failed for two hours during the evacuation, forcing authorities to go door-to-door to search for people in harm's way.

The fire caused no known injuries as residents appeared to get out the area in time. But many spent Tuesday in shelters wondering if their homes still existed. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said nine volunteer firefighters were among those who lost their homes.

Winds pushed the fire through three canyons where disease, drought and beetles that burrow under the bark have killed pine trees. The so-called bark beetles have killed more than 3.5 million acres of trees in Colorado and southeastern Wyoming and pose a significant wildfire threat.

Gusty winds hampered firefighting Monday, and a squadron of firefighting planes was grounded much of the day Tuesday because smoke covered the canyonlands and obscured targets. A mix of cold and warm air sandwiched smoke over the area but six tankers were cleared to take off later in the day after the inversion began to clear.

At least 300 firefighters, including crews from Wyoming and outside the region, were battling the wildfire. Crews managed to save the historic town of Gold Hill, including an Old West grocery store and structures once used for stagecoach stops. More crews were expected in Boulder on Wednesday.

Though westerly dry winds that spread the blaze Monday had eased Tuesday, authorities said no portion of the fire was contained. Boulder County sheriff's Cmdr. Rich Brough said the fire grew on the northeast and southeast flanks and burned more structures during the day.

Authorities planned to start posting the addresses of buildings destroyed on the Boulder Office of Emergency Management website Tuesday night to start letting people know the fate of their property. It will be at least two days before anyone is allowed to go home, Brough said.

Some of those forced out of their homes expressed frustration with not knowing what was going on.

"There's no information about anything. ... I am so frustrated," said Ronda Plywaski, who fled her home with her husband and their two German shepherds and spent the night at an evacuation center at the University of Colorado. "I just want to know if my house is OK."