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On the morning of Dec. 30, the sky in Louisville was as it had been almost every day that month: cloudless, blue and sunny. Blaise Breton woke up early to finish some work — her brother had just flown in from Fort Benning, Georgia, on military leave, and she was hoping to finish with clients early so she could spend the rest of the day showing him around Louisville and Boulder.

About 11 a.m., Blaise and her brother, Keenan, set out for a run. Though the National Weather Service had issued a high wind warning for Boulder County earlier that morning, Breton was unfazed. Having just moved from Miami, she was used to hurricanes and boarding up windows. This weather was just a little gusty.

Six miles away and six minutes later, the Boulder County Sheriff’s office was responding to reports about a grass fire near Colo. 93 and Marshall Road. Throughout the day, due to dry conditions and hurricane-force winds, the fire would spread over 6,000 acres in a matter of hours. The Marshall Fire would become the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, destroying 1,084 homes and seven businesses, and displacing over 30,000 residents. One man, Robert Sharpe, died, and a woman, identified by family as Edna Nadine Turnbull, is still reported missing.

Seven hours before the flames were first sighted, a high wind gust warning had been issued by the National Weather Service. Though wind speeds were expected to reach up to 80 miles an hour, by the end of the day wind speeds were reported as high as 115 miles per hour in the Front Range.

As the winds wore on, more than 7,000 people lost power.

In nearby Eldorado Springs, Michael Peirce was afraid to go outside his home in the Sans Souci mobile community just before the Marshall Fire ignited.

“The winds were strong enough that if I opened my door, it easily could have been ripped off,” recalls Peirce. However, as cries rang through the neighborhood, Peirce braved the gusts to find that the roof on a neighbor’s house had blown away.

After helping his neighbor find the roof, word quickly ran through the Sans Souci community from residents who had gotten an evacuation order on their mobile device at 11:47 a.m. There were whispers of a quickly spreading fire, and that a shed had caught fire across the street.

Soon thereafter, the Boulder Office of Emergency Management tweeted about getting numerous calls from residents seeing fire. In the tweet, the Office of Emergency Management advised residents who saw fire to evacuate immediately.

Officials had decided to close Colo. 93 and County Road 170 to travelers. Though many of the Sans Souci residents had evacuated, Peirce stayed put, noting that the direction of the wind was blowing due east, away from the mobile home park.

At the same time, in Louisville, the fire had moved across U.S. 36. According to Boulder County dispatch channel archives hosted on Broadcastify.com, the fire was first reported to have crossed U.S. 36 at 12:46 p.m., with a blaze behind the Home Depot on West Dillon Road.

Yvonne Williams, left, holds her horse, Cando, and her husband, Warren Williams, holds Cango. Yvonne Williams, who lives in Louisville, had to flee from the Marshall Fire on Dec. 30 as flames quickly engulfed her property. Her barn caught fire, and she was unable to reach her horses. She feared them dead, but they were found randomly a day later. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Nearby, Yvonne Williams and her husband, Warren, noticed flames advancing on their Davidson Mesa home while doing paperwork. In a matter of minutes, the Williamses had to evacuate their home, escaping with their lives and forced to leave their two black horses in their barn.

Less than 15 minutes later, the entire town of Superior was ordered to evacuate at 12:58 p.m., as 100 mph winds continued to drive the flames east.

In a moment of panic, Yvonne attempted to turn around to try to save her horses, but a fireman stopped her, telling her that McCaslin Boulevard had been closed.

Breton, Keenan, and Breton’s two roommates were already packing to leave by the time fire command issued an evacuation order for Louisville at 2:17 p.m. Breton had noticed smoke in the distance at the end of her run and went to check social media for updates. By the time they had packed their cars, they noticed homes had gone up in flames across Harper Lake.

“We had no idea what was happening. We didn’t even know where to drive to,” recalled Breton.

As Breton was sitting in traffic trying to evacuate from her neighborhood, flames had advanced upon Avista Adventist Hospital. Fifty-one patients were evacuated safely from the premises.

By the time NWS reported winds were dying down about 5 p.m., Breton, the Williamses and Peirce were all relatively safe. Breton and the Williamses had all evacuated to Boulder, with Breton staying at a friend’s house and the Williamses at a Hilton hotel. Peirce remained at his home, but had to keep warm using heat from his propane oven, as the Sans Souci mobile home park was still without power.

All is not lost

Firefighters were hopeful that an incoming winter storm on Dec. 31, the day after the fire ignited, would dampen the flames that were still raging inside the fire’s perimeter. Meteorologists at NWS were predicting 2 to 6 inches of snow with little wind that day, a welcome respite from the previous day’s monstrous conditions.

Earlier that morning, Yvonne had awoken from a fitful sleep from her bed at the Hilton about 1:30 a.m. Her phone was ringing, and on the other line was a woman whom Yvonne had never met before.

“Do you have two black horses?” the woman asked. “We used to,” replied Yvonne. “But we lost them in the fire.”

“I have them here, in my horse trailer,” the woman replied.

Yvonne and Warren were shocked to learn that a group of four friends from Castle Rock had stumbled upon her horses while driving around the perimeter of the burn area late in the evening, looking for animals.

As Yvonne approached her horses outside her hotel, she noticed that they were injured.

“Their eyes looked odd, like they were running down their faces,” said Yvonne. The horses’ hair had been singed, and they both had bleeding noses, but Yvonne said she was grateful, because “at least they were alive.”

After U.S. 36 was reopened at 2:01 p.m. Dec. 31, Yvonne and Warren tried to drive to their home to see if it was still standing, but were turned around once again when they learned the road remained closed.

Later in the morning, about 10 a.m., Breton and her roommates woke up to good news: Their house had not burned down. They watched on Facebook while Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle and other Boulder County officials gave an update on the fire, attributing the ferocity of the fire to high winds and unseasonably dry conditions. Pelle also announced that no fatalities had been reported thus far.

In the Sans Souci neighborhood, which was still without power, pipes were beginning to freeze, causing the entire neighborhood’s water system to shut down. Meanwhile, Peirce scrambled to assess the damage in his neighborhood. Some of the giant cottonwood trees that bordered the community had been snapped in half by wind gusts. Sides and roofs of several mobile homes had been completely ripped away, and downed power lines littered the pavement.

“We were superlucky that the park didn’t get lit on fire. I think that we had already lost power by the time our power lines blew down, but if our lines had ignited, there’s a chance that we all would be gone,” Peirce said.

The cold truth

By the morning of New Year’s Day, the Marshall Fire burn area had been blanketed with 10 inches of snow, aiding crews in their attempt to wrangle the flames, though at the same time slowing recovery efforts and damage assessments.

Residents were able to return to homes in Louisville that were under preevacuation at 1 p.m. that day. Upon receiving the notice that it was safe to return, Breton immediately went back to her home in Louisville, only to find it freezing cold and without heat, electricity or water.

“I was so excited to get back, and I found myself coming home to an icebox,” Breton said. Officials announced that day that about 13,000 Louisville and Superior residents were still without power. San Souci, Peirce’s neighborhood, also remained without water or power.

Later that afternoon, a preliminary list of damaged structures from the fire was released by the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office following a news conference from Pelle, who said that the cause of the fire was still under investigation. No fatalities had been reported, but three people were reported missing. A total of 991 structures were destroyed and another 127 structures were damaged. Yvonne and Warren learned that though their barn had burned down, their house was still standing. A veterinarian who examined her horses that day also told her they would be OK. That was when reality began to set in for Yvonne.

“At first we were all so thrilled to be alive, but now … so many people have lost everything. It’s hitting a lot of people right now,” she said.

The aftermath

By Jan. 3, the Marshall Fire had reached 100% containment, according to Boulder County officials, and had destroyed 6,026 acres.

Of the three people initially reported missing, one was found safe Jan. 2. The remains of the second missing person, who was later identified as Sharpe, 69, were found Jan. 5. On Jan. 19, bone fragments were found at the site where Turnbull, the third missing person, was last seen — although officials are still testing the remains to determine whether they are human.

Avista Adventist hospital reopened Jan. 18, following extensive smoke damage repair. On Jan. 5, both Superior and Louisville lifted their evacuation orders, and residents were allowed to reenter the burn area.

After building officials, inspectors, the Boulder County Assessor and staff from the Front Range and Denver areas surveyed the burn area, Boulder County released an updated list of damage Jan. 6. In Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County, a total of 1,084 residential structures and seven businesses were destroyed, with 149 residential structures and 30 businesses damaged. The total countywide value of homes destroyed is estimated to be $513,212,589, while the total countywide actual value of commercial damage is still being calculated.

The cause of the fire remains unknown. While early reports cited downed power lines from the high wind as the cause, Pelle refuted that theory at a news conference, stating that no power lines had been located near the fire’s origin. Authorities are analyzing an underground coal mine fire and human activity as potential causes.

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