Following a fire that forced the evacuation of more than 32,000 people, Colorado continues to be plagued with an “unprecedented” wildfire season that’s shaping up to yield high-dollar values in terms of losses, an insurance industry veteran dealing with the fires said on Wednesday.
The Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs doubled in size from Tuesday to Wednesday, has forced the evacuation of 32,000-plus people and counting, is threatening the U.S. Air Force Academy and Pikes Peak, as well as the state’s summer tourism, and has now burned more than 15,000 acres.
Temperatures well into the 90s, low relative humidities, high winds and massive amounts of fuel have made for a severe fire season in several Western U.S. states, one that experts note is still early. Several more days of temperatures in the 90s and continued low humidity are expected. The annual monsoonal season around the second week of July, if it brings rain and not more lighting strikes, could give some greatly needed firefighting assistance.
The Waldo Canyon Fire, the cause of which is still unknown, is only 5 percent contained with its growth potential rated “extreme” thanks to difficult terrain, high winds, temperatures in excess of 90 degrees and low relative humidity.
“This one really blew up yesterday afternoon,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. “What’s terrifying is it moved from the forest into the city.”
Walker, who has been on scene at the fire, added, “You could watch from the ridge as homes burned. I’ve been doing this job 15 years, and I’ve never seen homes going up as quickly as I did last night. It’s heartbreaking.”
No official estimates have been given on the number or structures destroyed, but several sources have speculated that at least 100 homes have been burned. Walker could not confirm that number, saying only “there’s beeen rumors going around.”
The fire near Colorado Springs, the state’s second most populous city, has reportedly set several subdivisions ablaze, including the upper-middle-class Mountain Shadows community of around of 4,000 residents.
“Certainly we know we lost structures and homes in those subdivisions,” Walker said.
George Hayward III, a public relations professional who lives in Mountain Shadows, said he believes his family’s home was likely standing in the morning, but he’s unsure how long his optimistic outlook and his home will hold out.
“When I was driving home from work yesterday, the ridge line behind the house was a wall of fire, and the evacuation order came maybe 15 minutes later,” Hayward said on Wednesday evening. “As of this a.m., we were pretty sure – but not positive – that the house survived. According to fire maps posted online, it had got to about half-a-mile from the house. Today, we just don’t know. The neighborhood is still shrouded in smoke with active fires inside and we can’t get back in.”
Walker said on that Wednesday there were lines of policyholders standing outside the mobile vans of several insurers discussing their homes, some reporting them destroyed, and several people seeking assistance with living essentials.
Many displaced policyholders were in need of money to pay for temporary lodging, she said.
“We have 32,000 evacuated and the insurance companies have all activated their catastrophe units. They were lined up at Farmers and Allstate and State Farm and USAA,” Walker said. “With this many people evacuated from the city there’s not a hotel room from south Denver to Colorado Springs.”
The fire has momentarily drawn some attention away from the High Park Fire, considered the second largest in the state’s history and its most destructive.
The High Park Fire has burned 87,284 acres and destroyed 257 homes. The fire, which was caused by a lighting strike, is 65 percent contained. The cost of the fire to date is $33.1 million. Gov. John Hickenlooper has authorized roughly $25 million in emergency funds for the fire.
“It’s an unprecedented situation,” Walker said, referring to the fire season right now in Colorado.
The fires can be considered a double whammy, at least, for Colorado, which experienced a considerable amount of hail damage in an early June storm. New insurance claim estimates from the hail, wind and flooding that wreaked havoc on June 6 from South Denver down to Colorado Springs and again on June 7 in Northern Colorado and the Eastern Plains made it the state’s fourth most costly catastrophe with estimated claims totaling $321.1 million.
The rough month of June Coloradans are suffering prompted an exasperated Walker to state: “What’s next? Locusts?”