(Photo: Cliff Grassmick, Daily Camera, via AP)
BOULDER, Colo. - A large, potent storm system that dumped up to 10 inches of rain over central Colorado has killed at least three people and forced the evacuations of hundreds. Cities and towns along the state's Front Range braced Thursday for a fresh pummeling of flooding.
Boulder County was hit hardest, with up to 6 inches of rain falling over 12 hours. Flooding was reported along a 130-mile swath from Colorado Springs to north of Fort Collins, closing dozens of roads, including parts of Highway 36 between Estes Park and Lyons, a town 15 miles north of Boulder cut off by high water.
Even downtown Denver was affected. Police evacuated a roughly 15 block area off of East Colfax Street , near a park and creek, due to rising water, KUSA-TV reported. City buses were brought in to help residents get out.
One person was killed in the collapse of a home in Jamestown, a mountain community isolated by washed out roads, KUSA said. Colorado Springs police found a second victim in Fountain Creek while patrolling west of the city. A third victim was recovered from a north Boulder home Thursday morning.
The National Weather Service, which early Thursday posted a bulletin warning of "biblical" rainfall in some areas, forecast 6 to 10 inches could fall through the weekend. Residents of canyons nestled in the foothills remained at risk of flash floods.
By Thursday morning, hard-hit Boulder received more than 7 inches of rainfall, shattering the college town's 95-year record for rain in a 24-hour period.
"This is not an ordinary day, it is not an ordinary disaster. All the preparation in the world ... it can't put people up those canyons while these walls of water are coming down," Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.
Residents of Fourmile Canyon near Boulder and Coal Creek Canyon, northwest of Denver, were under mandatory evacuation orders. "I think we have a continually dangerous situation,'' said Pelle, who urged Boulder residents to stay home. "It's not a good day to travel. It's not a good day to risk your loved ones' lives. It's a good day to hunker down.''
The University of Colorado-Boulder campus was closed for the remainder of the week after a torrent of water from Boulder Creek flooding damaged about 40 buildings, or about a quarter of the campus. Hundreds of students were forced to evacuate residence halls. Officials also closed Boulder Valley and St. Vrain District schools. Evacuations were also ordered for parts of Denver, Aurora, Commerce City and Longmont.
Drivers of three vehicles had to be rescued from a flooded ditch after a road near Highway 287 near Broomfield collapsed.
A firefighter was stuck in a tree in Lefthand Canyon in Boulder County after floodwaters roared through. He was rescued after several hours and hospitalized, according to the Boulder County Sheriff's Office.
Police scanners buzzed with emergencies as rescuers aided motorists caught in high waters. One officer told dispatchers about "banging inside the cars" as passengers sought help getting out.
Another reported a car submerged upside down, with at least one person missing.
Footage from KCNC-TV showed the dramatic rescue of a man from a car upside down in a flooded creek in Lafayette.
Near Lyons, rescuers were turned back by flooding in St. Vrain Creek, where a dam failed near Pinewood Springs Thursday morning. Lyons town officials ordered residents to boil drinking water after the local water treatment plant flooded.
"It's just raging, gushing water," said resident Carin Gray. "We're totally isolated."
Gray said she watched emergency workers rescue several people with heavy equipment, carrying them to safety down Highway 36 in the bucket of a front-end loader.
"There are definitely houses that have been lost and roads that have been washed away," Gray said.
Tom Abbot, a nearby resident, said that after rains began flooding the area and sent rocks and trees tumbling, he slept in his battered pickup Wednesday night.
Residents Jeremy and Molly Poore said they were awakened by calls from anxious family members watching TV coverage of the flooding. Their rented home wasn't in danger, they said, but they worried about the home they had considered buying in nearby Lyons. Authorities closed off access to that area early Thursday morning after reports of massive flooding.
The house, Jeremy Poole said, boasted riverfront views. "I bet it's not even there anymore," he said.
Nick Christensen with the Larimer County Sheriff's Office was following a deputy along state Highway 66 into Lyons when both full-sized SUVs began to be jostled by floodwaters.
Water flowed over the road's 27-inch-high guardrails. Deputies and road crews tried to access the area to check for stranded residents and damage.
"There were homes and businesses that were receiving significant impact," Christensen said. "It was flowing in waves down the road. There's definitely a lot of water."
Boulder Office of Emergency Management spokeswoman Gabrielle Boerkircher said volunteers across the area tried to help stranded people until emergency crews could arrive. Many roads are impassable.
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."
The National Weather Service said multiple homes in the area have collapsed and urged people to move to higher ground.
The NWS issued a flash flood warning for Northern Jefferson and Boulder Counties, saying that in many locations, this is an "extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation."
Hughes reports for The Coloradoan in Fort Collins; Garrison for KUSA in Denver. Contributing: Doug Stanglin, John Bacon, Doyle Rice, Kim Hjelmgarrd and William M. Welch, USA TODAY.