'I could hear the wood crackling': Residents recount escape from fast-moving flames of Colorado wildfires

·4 min read

LAFAYETTE, Colo. — On Thursday afternoon, Forrest Smith was sitting in his Louisville home watching the daylight change from light to dark as smoke filled the air.

Eventually there was so much of it that the smoke detector in his house went off. He saw flames on a nearby golf course and tried to call to see if anyone was trying to put it out, he said. But he saw no fire trucks and didn't hear any sirens.

He went outside, hoping not to see anything. But, two doors down, a house was on fire.

“I could hear the wood crackling and stuff,” Smith said. “It was burning and it’s not a good feeling because you know it's going and ain't nothing gonna stop it.”

He went back inside, called 911 and knew he had just minutes to leave his house. When he sat in his car to leave, he felt hot ashes burning him. He patted the driver's seat beneath him to put them out, then drove away without knowing where he was headed.

COLORADO WILDFIRES: How you can help those impacted by the Marshall and Middle Fork fires in Boulder County

Smith has lived in Louisville for 30 years, and he’s sure his home is gone. He said he left everything behind except for a coffee cup, a water cup and his cellphone; he didn’t even think to grab his wallet.

“For some reason, I'm thinking in my mind, I'm just going to come back, you know?” he said.

Smith was one of about 115 people who spent Thursday night in an American Red Cross evacuation shelter at the Lafayette YMCA after the Marshall Fire scorched about 6,000 acres and destroyed homes and businesses in towns north of Denver.

Neighbors embrace on Friday after seeing the destruction left by the Marshall Fire in Louisville, Colorado.
Neighbors embrace on Friday after seeing the destruction left by the Marshall Fire in Louisville, Colorado.

As many as 1,000 homes may have been burned, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said Friday morning, though exact numbers likely won’t come for at least another day. The fire had a strange pattern, he said, leaving some houses untouched but burning others quickly.

Gov. Jared Polis called it “a disaster in fast motion” as most of the damage took place in just half a day. With a snowstorm expected Friday through Saturday, officials were confident the fires wouldn’t spread and are focused on containing the remaining flames within the burn scar.

But without an official count of how many – and which – homes have been lost, thousands didn’t know if they would have a place to return to.

'THE BLINK OF AN EYE': Fierce Colorado wildfires tore through communities within minutes

Reanna Coleman was at work Thursday when she got a call from a friend asking if they were evacuating, but she didn’t know what he was talking about. Her mother was at home with Coleman’s three children and when Coleman got off the phone with her friend and called to tell them to evacuate, her mother said there was so much smoke she couldn’t even see in front of her.

“It's like a scary movie,” she said. “I just want to wake up and everything's going to be OK.”

Coleman’s family left the house in Superior with just the clothes on their back, and they spent the night in a hotel. Coleman said she’d been up all night crying and asked to go back to the house, but officials won’t let her. She said her landlord told her at least part of the house had burned, but she doesn’t know the full extent.

A Boulder County neighborhood destroyed by a wind-driven wildfire, as seen Friday from a Colorado National Guard helicopter.
A Boulder County neighborhood destroyed by a wind-driven wildfire, as seen Friday from a Colorado National Guard helicopter.

On Friday, Coleman and her family were seeking shelter at the evacuation center.

Genny McGregor, her son and their four animals stayed in the evacuation center Thursday and Friday, unsure of their immediate plans. She didn’t think the area around her north Louisville home had burned, but she’s concerned there wouldn’t be power or water if she went back.

When she saw some smoke out of her window around noon Thursday, she sent a picture to a friend but didn’t think much of it, telling herself “we have that in Boulder.” But 30 minutes later, her son interrupted a work call to let her know they needed to evacuate and, shortly thereafter, they were on the road.

“It felt like Armageddon getting out of there,” McGregor said. “You’re not in the right mind.”

Nicole Maul, a spokesperson for the Red Cross, said they work “in close partnership with local and state emergency managers to determine what the long-term needs will be.”

“Recovery is a journey and we aren’t going anywhere,” she said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Colorado wildfires were 'like a scary movie' for fleeing residents

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