LYONS, Colo. — Flash flooding in northern Colorado has left three people dead, and the widespread high waters are keeping search and rescue teams from reaching stranded residents and motorists in Boulder and nearby mountain communities as heavy rains hammered the area Thursday.
The National Weather Service warned of an “extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation” throughout the region as the flooding forced people from their homes, canceled classes and led to mudslides and rockslides in some areas.
“Move to higher ground now. Act quickly to protect your life,” the Weather Service warned in numerous bulletins that went out throughout the morning.
Boulder Office of Emergency Management spokeswoman Gabrielle Boerkircher said volunteers were trying to help stranded people until emergency crews could arrive because many roads were impassable.
Boerkircher told The Associated Press one person was killed when a structure collapsed in the tiny town of Jamestown. She said no details were available.
“We’re trying to get to Jamestown,” Boerkircher said. “A lot of towns need assistance, and we cannot get through.”
The Weather Service said county officials reported some homes in the community had collapsed, according to a report by The Denver Post.
Colorado Springs spokeswoman Kim Melchor said police conducting flood patrols found a body in the water on the city’s west side Thursday morning after warnings were issued for flooding from a wildfire burn scar west of town.
Such floods warnings have been frequent this summer in areas hit by last year’s deadly Waldo Canyon Fire, which destroyed 347 homes, killed two people and burned more than 28 square miles. Areas burned by wildfires are vulnerable to flash floods because the scorched soil absorbs less water.
National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Kleyla said a 20-foot wall of water was reported in Left Hand Canyon north of Boulder, and a firefighter radioed he was trapped in a tree. He said rescuers were trying to get through, but were blocked by debris.
The Larimer County office of emergency information said an earthen dam in the Big Elk Meadows area southeast of Estes Park gave way, and residents of Pinewood Springs and Blue Mountain were ordered to be ready to evacuate.
Residents of the Big Elk Meadows area were told by a recorded message they “should be seeking higher ground immediately.”
Larimer County sheriff’s spokesman John Schulz said three other dams that are in danger of being breached near Big Elk Meadow are being monitored. Residents are being warned that a big dam near Estes Park will begin releasing water to relieve the danger, causing the Big Thompson River to rise and possibly force more evacuations, he said.
Capt. John Burt of the Colorado State Patrol said damage was being reported in four counties – Boulder, Larimer and Jefferson northwest of Denver and El Paso County around Colorado Springs.
Burt said a heavy storm cell moved through during the night, dumping heavy amounts of rain. It spread east, causing flooding on the Eastern Plains, then turned around and headed back.
“It’s a different weather cell than we have seen in the past,” he said.
Rainfall in recent days that dramatically increased Wednesday caused the flash flooding that also triggered mudslides. Kleyla said Boulder County got up to 6 inches of rain in the past 12 hours, Fort Collins got up to 2 inches, Denver up to 4 inches, southern Weld County up to 7 inches, and Colorado Springs up to 2 inches. He said most of the serious flooding was being reported on the Front Range from Colorado Springs to north of Fort Collins.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood emergency for the county and northwest Jefferson County, while a mandatory evacuation order was in effect for Jamestown and the Fourmile area.
An evacuation center for the mountain residents has been sent up in nearby Nederland, officials said.
Flash flood emergencies were also issued downstream from the Front Range mountain areas, including Fort Lupton, Dacono, Plateville and other farming areas as debris piled up near bridges.
Emergency management officials reported people were still trapped in the St. Vrain Creak, Fourmile Canyon, Lefthand Creek and Coal Creek streams around 6 a.m., hours after the rainfall started.
One bulletin for Adams County included a succinct warning: “Stay away or be swept away.”
Meanwhile, about 400 students at the University of Colorado housing in Boulder were evacuated and classes canceled Thursday because of the flooding, Boekircher said.
“We’ve asked people in low-lying areas all through the county to evacuate,” said Andrew Barth, another Emergency Management spokesman.
In addition to the two counties where there were flood emergencies, the Weather Service posted flash flood warnings for parts of Broomfield, Adams, Weld, Larimer, and El Paso counties.
Mudslides and rockslides were reported in several areas, with parts of U.S. 6, Boulder Canyon, Colorado 14 and U.S. 287 all reporting problems and temporary blockages during the evening, the Denver Post said. Lefthand Canyon was reported blocked by one of the many slides.
Boulder police dispatchers were receiving calls of flooding basements and homes and of flooded streets and submerged cars. Authorities said the flooding has made many Boulder streets impassable.
Emergency Management Director Mike Chard.said people should avoid creeks and waterways, and not attempt to cross flooded intersections in their cars.
“We’re also asking people who are OK to shelter in place Thursday, just because the roads are so bad,” Barth said.
As the flooding began Wednesday evening, the city of Erie was the hardest hit in the county with up to a foot of water across Erie Parkway, according to a report by KCNC.
As the rains continued, conditions deteriorated early Thursday across the region.