Search teams looked for two missing people on Sunday in snow-covered but smoldering debris from a massive Colorado wildfire, while people who escaped sorted through what was left and investigators tried to determine its cause.

The flames ripped through at least 9.4 sq miles and left nearly 1,000 homes and other buildings destroyed in suburbs between Denver and Boulder.

It came unusually late in the year following an extremely dry fall and amid a winter nearly devoid of snow. Experts say those conditions, along with high winds, helped the fire spread.

In hard-hit Louisville, Susan Hill walked her dog in well-below freezing chill, down a snowy street. She choked up as she remembered seeing the sky change color from the hill where she used to watch fireworks and then a sprint out of town with her college-age son and the dog, cat and the fire box with birth certificates and other documents.

The flames stopped about 100 yards from her property, she said, and she slept on Saturday night in her home, using a space heater and hot water bottles to stay warm.

“I don’t even know how to describe it,” she said. “It’s so sad. It’s so awful. It’s just devastating.”

In the burned-out neighborhood, a US Mail carrier checked still-standing brick and stone boxes. The fire came so quickly people might have put bills or other letters in there, she said, and she didn’t want someone to steal them.

While homes that burned to foundations were still smoldering, the blaze was no longer considered an immediate threat, especially with snow and frigid temperatures.

“A day late and a dollar short,” Hill said of the snow, which scientists said typically prevents winter fires in dry grass.

The Colorado governor, Jared Polis, and federal officials were touring damaged neighborhoods.

“I know this is a hard time in your life if you’ve lost everything or you don’t even know what you lost,” Polis told residents. “A few days ago you were celebrating Christmas at home and hanging your stockings and now home and hearth have been destroyed.”

The cause of the fire was under investigation. Utility officials found no downed power lines around where the fire broke out. The Boulder county sheriff, Joe Pelle, said on Saturday authorities were pursuing tips and had executed a search warrant at “one particular location”. He refused to give details again on Sunday, including whether he thought the fire was set.

“It’s complicated and it’s all covered with a foot of snow,” Pelle said of the scene where the fire started. “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.”

Authorities first said everyone was accounted for. But a Boulder county spokeswoman, Jennifer Churchill, said reports of three people missing were later discovered.

On Sunday, officials said one person was found alive. Crews were still looking for a woman at a home in Superior and a man near Marshall. Pelle said their homes were “deep in hot debris and covered with snow. It is a difficult task”.

Other investigators were seeing if the missing people might have made it out but not contacted families or friends, Pelle said.

A firefighter sprays water on a snow-covered home still smoldering in the Rock Creek neighborhood of Superior.


Of at least 991 buildings destroyed by the fire, most were homes. But the blaze also burned through eight businesses at a shopping center in Louisville, including a nail salon and a Subway restaurant. In Superior, 12 businesses were damaged, including a Target, Chuck E Cheese, Tesla dealership, a hotel and the town hall.

The two towns are about 20 miles north-west of Denver with a combined population of 34,000. Utility crews expected to get most electricity restored on Sunday, but warned gas might take longer.

People lined up to get space heaters, bottled water and blankets at Red Cross shelters. Xcel Energy urged residents to use fireplaces and wood stoves to stay warm and keep pipes from freezing.

A Superior resident, Jeff Markley, arrived in his truck to pick up a heater. He said he felt lucky to be “just displaced” since his home is intact.

“We’re making do, staying with friends, and upbeat for the new year. Gotta be better than this last one,” Markley said.