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Wildfires propelled by hurricane-force winds destroyed hundreds of homes near Boulder, Colorado, overwhelming firefighters and forcing the evacuation of entire towns in the drought-stricken region.

More than 500 homes and a large hotel were engulfed by flames Thursday in the latest devastating blazes to hit the U.S. West. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle warned there could be casualties. 

The wildfires are the most recent bout of extreme weather as climate change and a La Nina weather pattern leaves much of the U.S. West hotter and drier. 

Most of the region, including all of Colorado, are gripped by drought. More than 2.5 million acres have burned this year in California alone. The area around Boulder, a college town northwest of Denver, hasn’t had significant rain or snow for months.

“We saw a line of flames at least a mile long," Carmen Porter, who evacuated her home in Boulder County near Louisville, said by telephone. “Houses in the subdivision to the south, across the road from us, burned for sure."

Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who lives in Boulder, declared a state of emergency as thousands abandoned the communities of Superior and Louisville, jamming roads and highways. Residents in other parts of Boulder County were warned they too may need to leave. 

Colorado’s wildfire season typically ends in autumn, but the region is so dry and devoid of snow that it remains primed for blazes. They come just weeks after unseasonably warm weather helped spur deadly tornadoes in Kentucky and a rare and violent wave of thunder and wind storms known as a derecho in Nebraska and Kansas.

The area that burned is at the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains, a region called the Front Range. Much of the terrain is prairie, and many of the homes that were destroyed were recently built, with wood frames. 

After nightfall in Colorado, the high winds subsided though skies were orange from the flames and the blistering heat was detected by a weather satellite 22,000 miles above the planet, the National Weather Service office in Boulder said on Twitter. Snow is forecast for Friday, which will be some relief to the region. Local officials scheduled a media briefing for 10 a.m. local time. 

The Boulder County Sheriff’s office said on Twitter Thursday that the grass fires were sparked by downed power lines and transformers. A spokeswoman for the utility that serves the region, Xcel Energy Inc., said the company hasn’t been able to access its equipment yet and had no immediate comment on the cause of the blazes.

“We’re working with authorities," the spokeswoman, Michelle Aguayo, said in a brief interview.

Xcel shares fell as much as 1.7% in New York.  

Wind gusts roaring in from the Rocky Mountains reached as high as 110 miles (177 kilometers) an hour, prompting the weather service to issue an alert on Twitter saying “If you are in Louisville, this is a life threatening situation. Leave Now!"

“We are literally watching it burn," said Superior Mayor Clint Folsom, quoted by the Denver Post. “This is devastating for our people."

The governor called the fires “unprecedented" saying they “destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and have displaced thousands," according to an emailed statement. Blotches of flame scattered far and wide could be seen from a flight departing Denver International Airport.

The primary blaze, the Marshall fire, had burned about 1,600 acres as of 5 p.m., the Denver Gazette reported. About 15,000 homes and businesses across the state, mostly in Boulder County, were without power as of 8:37 a.m. Friday, according to Poweroutage.us, which tracks utility outages. That’s down from more than 47,000 late Thursday.

Disaster services opened evacuation centers across Boulder County. A special site to shelter horses and other large animals at the county fairgrounds filled up and a second site for animals was opened in neighboring Jefferson County.

Patients at Centura-Avista Adventist Hospital in Superior were “safely evacuated" to other facilities, hospital operator Centura said in a statement.

Away from the fires, the winds flipped large trucks in the Denver suburb of Arvada on Thursday.

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