19,000 told to evacuate in south Boulder as fire grows to 122 acres

A wildfire near the National Center for Atmospheric Research crept within a few hundred yards of homes and forced nearly 20,000 evacuations in the south Boulder area Saturday afternoon, but officials said they hope to re-examine evacuation orders as the fire burns south and away from the city.

Residents of the Table Mesa, Martin Acres and Eldorado Springs areas have been placed under mandatory evacuation notices, as firefighters said they have zero containment on the fire. Other areas under evacuation orders include the Chautauqua, Interurban Park and Highland Park neighborhoods in addition to the Boulder open space west of those neighborhoods.

University of Colorado Boulder police evacuated CU South due to the fire, and police also blocked westbound traffic on Table Mesa Drive at Vassar Drive.

In total, the evacuation area now includes 19,000 people and 8,000 homes, according to the Boulder Office of Emergency Management.

The East Boulder Community Center, 5660 Sioux Drive, has been opened as an evacuation point and will also serve as an overnight shelter. The American Red Cross is responding.

Household pets are welcome at the East Boulder Community Center, but those animals can also be taken to the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, 2323 55th St. Free pet food and supplies also are available there.

Boulder County Fairgrounds at 9595 Nelson Road in Longmont is now accepting large animals.

The fire has grown to 122 acres and is still at zero containment, but no injuries or structure damage has been reported.

Boulder-Fire rescue officials said the fire is moving south and not toward the city, but as a precaution crews have been stationed near Stony Hill Drive southeast of NCAR to create a wet zone about 30 feet from homes as a barrier.

Officials said the fire came within about a tenth of a mile from homes in that area, though they are not believed to be threatened at this time.

“Crews did excellent, excellent work keeping it out of the subdivision down here on the western edge of the city,” said Boulder Fire-Rescue Division Chief Brian Oliver.

There have also been no reported injuries as a result of the fire.

Boulder Fire-Rescue spokeswoman Marya Washburn said at a 7 pm press conference that officials did not anticipate more evacuations, though she asked residents to stay alert and keep their phones with them.

Washburn said crews would re-examine the evacuation orders in the next few hours to see if any could be lifted.

Officials said the fire started at about 2 pm, with winds in the area at about 15 to 25 mph out of the northwest. Winds died down in the afternoon, and Oliver said crews hoped to take advantage of the weather conditions overnight.

“We’ll get crews working on mopping up and securing things overnight while the humidity is up,” Oliver said.

Oliver said crews will likely be working on the fire for the next few days due to the amount of fuel, with dormant trees and dry grass.

“That’s why we had such active fire behavior,” Oliver said. “We’re not in that green-up stage of spring yet.”

Washburn also warned that changes in wind and air pressure would lead to more smoke in the city of Boulder, but that it did not indicate increased fire activity.

Boulder had requested two air tankers from Texas, but officials did not know when they would arrive, and Oliver said all air efforts would have to stop at nightfall.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued a statement Saturday.

“We are grateful for the swift action and response to this wildfire by our firefighters and first responders,” Polis stated. “State officials have spoken with Sheriff (Joe) Pelle this afternoon and the state has deployed two firefighting aircraft, including a single-engineer tanker and type 2 helicopter, and stands ready to assist with the response. We will continue to monitor this evolving situation. ”

Boulder resident Isabella Fortunato was hiking with friends and her dog Luna on the Bear Canyon Trail on Saturday afternoon when they started to see billowing smoke and hikers running back down the trail.

“I did not know what to think,” Fortunato said. “I’ve seen fires before, but never while hiking. I was like ‘should we go back?’ ”

With their car in the NCAR parking lot and police blocking off Table Mesa at Vassar, Fortunato said they were stuck waiting for information.

“I’m sure everyone is worried, after (the Marshall Fire),” Fortunato said.

Rock climber Mathew Sahli also got too close for comfort while climbing with friends on the south side of Seal Rock.

“Someone saw black smoke,” he said. “Then we saw the fire pop up above that. We went up and around on the west side of the formation. We went north and east to sneak around the fire. It was wild. “

Sahli said their reaction was to evacuate immediately. At the NCAR parking lot, they caught a ride with a truck driver, who shuttled them down Table Mesa to the road block at Vassar.

Stefan Codrescu, who lives on Vassar Drive, was doing yardwork when he heard police and fire sirens rushing up Table Mesa around 2:15 pm.

From the corner of Vassar and Table Mesa, he watched the smoke drift over the nearby mountains.

He said it was “a little alarming to have another one in the backyard,” especially in wake of the Marshall Fire.

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