BOULDER COUNTY – Chihoko Cullens’ 7-year-old daughter was using the new teacher set she got for Christmas to run a pretend classroom for her little brother and sister, all three still in their pajamas, when the smell of smoke crept into the house.
It was 12:10 p.m., an hour after the first 911 call reporting the Marshall fire.
The Cullens’ home was among the first to burn in the wind-fueled fire that tore through grassland into Superior and then to Louisville, gobbling more than 900 houses in the span of about six hours on Dec. 30. Within 20 minutes of their escape, the home was engulfed by flames, according to emergency dispatch recordings reviewed by The Colorado Sun.
Theirs is the first address mentioned in recordings as catching fire.
Evan Cullens had tried to warn his wife, texting and calling to tell her he had seen smoke in the distance as he headed to meet a friend for lunch. But Chihoko Cullens’ phone was upstairs and she was downstairs with her children.
She got no warning, no reverse-911 call — nothing but the smell of fire and a thick smoke that billowed up to her house on Cherokee Avenue, in the Sagamore neighborhood on the edge of Superior. In a matter of seconds, Chihoko got her three children in her old Dodge minivan and ran back inside to grab her phone. By the time she got back in the vehicle, she could no longer see her house through smoke so thick it made her choke.
Chihoko followed the taillights of the car in front of her to find her way out of the neighborhood, dialing her husband at the same time he was rushing home to make sure they were OK. Evan abandoned his lunch plans after the wind blew so fiercely that his pickup truck, idling at a stop sign, rattled and shifted. He could see smoke rising in the direction of home.
Their neighbors, also fleeing for their lives, watched as the flames ignited in a gully filled with bushes and dried grass, then leaped through the air onto the Cullens’ deck.
The Colorado Sun reviewed hours of emergency dispatch recordings and spoke to more than a dozen survivors of the Marshall fire to recreate how the disaster, which displaced tens of thousands of people and may have killed two, unfolded minute by minute. The reporting revealed that first responders were outmatched from the start and that it took less than two hours for flames to spread several miles from the Marshall area into Louisville.
Dispatch recordings reveal early confusion about two fires
Just after 11 a.m., a caller reported smoke south of Boulder, near the intersection of Colorado 93 and Eldorado Springs Drive. The source was possibly a power line that had been knocked down by fierce winds, the person said.
Videos from the area where the fire ignited show flames being whipped by fierce winds that gusted above 100 mph. A fence was quickly ablaze.
Within minutes, a Mountain View Fire Rescue engine, apparently from a nearby station about a mile away on the road to Eldorado Canyon, was on scene.
“We do have a small fire,” a firefighter reported back to dispatchers, explaining that what looked like a power line was hanging about 10 feet off the ground. (Authorities later said it was a telecommunications line that had fallen and that it likely wasn’t the cause of the fire.)
Other first responders in Boulder County were busy dealing with another fire just north of Boulder. The fierce winds were fanning those flames, too, and causing other problems. A semi-trailer had just been blown over nearby.
“The crazy winds that we had that day had a lot of jurisdictions responding to (a lot of things),” said Michelle Kelly, a spokeswoman for Mountain View Fire Rescue. “There were just a lot of calls in the system at the time.”
Kelly said that when first responders are already stretched thin “it adds to the chaos and the complexity” of responding to a disaster like the Marshall fire. Emergency broadcast archives make that much clear.
Dispatchers told the first firefighters to arrive at the scene that there were no law enforcement resources available to help direct traffic around the developing disaster because of everything else that was going on in Boulder County.
“OK,” the firefighter responded at roughly 11:20 a.m. “We’ll do our best.”
The emergency dispatch recordings also indicate that there was some early confusion among first responders as they raced to contain the two wildfires. Dispatchers sometimes appeared to struggle to determine which fire crews were responding to since both were on Foothills Highway, though miles apart.
The northern fire, called the Middle Fork fire, was burning off of North Foothills Highway and was initially a bigger concern because officials were estimating that it had grown to between 30 and 40 acres. The southern fire, the Marshall fire, was burning off of South Foothills Highway.
The situation quickly deteriorated after the first firefighters arrived on scene at the Marshall fire.
“Fire is moving through the property and it’s going to be moving into some homes,” one of the initial responders called into his radio just before 11:30 a.m. “I’m going to need additional units.”
At 11:33 a.m. a firefighter reported that at least one structure was on fire but that he wasn’t sure how bad the situation was because “I can’t really see around me.” The wind and smoke were too intense.
“It’s pushing east fast”
Over the next hour, the Marshall fire exploded northeast.
Fire officials declined to make the first firefighters on scene available for interviews with The Sun. Kelly said that’s in part because “people don’t have all of the facts to be able to speak to the incident yet.”
“We are still in the process of finalizing our reports and the timelines,” Kelly said.
The Boulder Sheriff’s Office declined to release 911 transcripts, citing an ongoing investigation into the cause of the fire.
Despite the lack of official accounts, emergency radio traffic shows that authorities were aware by 11:45 a.m. that they were dealing with a disaster. Erratic winds paired with extremely dry conditions meant that firefighters never really had a chance, officials say.
“We now have fire on both sides of Marshall Road. And it’s pushing east fast,” a firefighter told dispatchers. “If we can let all those folks know, probably within a couple miles east, that they need to start evacuating.”
A hospice patient in a home near where the fire started needed to be evacuated. Residents of another nearby house were refusing to leave. Flames were about to overtake a building.
Firefighting reinforcements from Boulder County’s mountain towns were heading east to join the battle.
And then the situation went from bad to worse.
At about 12:15 p.m., someone in a home on Cherokee Avenue in Superior — several miles from where the fire began — called 911 to report that they had flames in their backyard.
“Running away from evil”
Matteo Rebeschini knew the winds were particularly intense Dec. 30 when he looked out the window of his home in Superior’s Sagamore subdivision and saw tumbleweeds doing a crazy dance through the open space abutting his property.
He wasn’t alarmed at first. Fierce winds along Colorado’s Front Range, after all, are a fact of life.
“Then I started to smell something burning,” he said.
At about the same time, roughly noon, a neighbor texted him a photo of smoke approaching from the west. The plume looked to be headed more north away from his house, but Rebeschini started to worry. He was home alone with his two children, ages 11 and 12, and without a car. His wife, Melanie Glover, had left earlier in the day with the family’s only vehicle.
Rebeschini told his kids to get dressed and ready to leave and called his wife at 12:10 p.m. to come home as a precaution. He hadn’t received a reverse 911 call from authorities warning of the danger.
Five minutes later, the situation changed.
“Really very suddenly the wind shifted,“ he said. “It looked like someone switched off the lights outside.”
Suddenly his house began filling up with smoke. Flames were close. The smoke alarm went off.
Rebeschini and his children huddled in their mud room. He covered his mouth and went to look for the family’s cat and told his son to call 911 and beg for someone to rescue them from their home at 181 Mohawk Circle.
Glover said she spoke on the phone with her husband during this time. The normally calm man kept saying “Oh my god.” She could hear her children screaming in the background. There was nothing Glover could do. She was stuck in traffic on U.S. 36.
Within a minute of the 911 call, a police car pulled up and Rebeschini, his two children and two dogs piled in the back and were whisked away. The family left their cat and guinea pigs behind.
“It looked like one of the end-of-the-world scenes,” Rebeschini said of the last time he saw his home. “It was like running away from evil.”
All of the homes in the Sagamore subdivision were destroyed.
Panic at Costco
At 11:51 a.m., Natalie Warady pulled into the Costco parking lot in Superior for shrimp, lemons and garlic so she could make a New Year’s Eve shrimp cocktail with her boyfriend.
She texted him a picture of the sky, blue above Costco but with smoke rising in the distance.
Warady, a product and style designer, didn’t make it through the checkout line. As she waited with her groceries in her cart, she heard banging on the roof. Others told her they saw red flashes through the skylight window. She smelled smoke. Then, Costco employees came through the store shouting, “Put everything down! We’re evacuating!”
The person in front of Warady left food on the conveyor belt and they all rushed toward the exit.
They ran into a vortex of flying ash and debris, with black soot swirling on the ground. The wind made it hard to stand up and the smoke was so thick Warady had trouble finding her car. A woman next to her was calling her family, and in a shaky voice on the verge of tears, explaining that she was close to the fire.
“When I walked outside, I thought, ‘We’re in it — this is not approaching!’” Warady said.
She took a video as she made her way to her car. She was covered in ash, her eyes stinging and her lungs burning from the smoke. To the left, she saw grass on fire along U.S. 36.
“That was really when panic set into my brain,” Warady said.
It took 40 minutes for Warady to get out of the parking lot, clogged with shoppers fleeing not just Costco but Target, Chuck E. Cheese and Whole Foods. Fire, propelled by wind, was igniting bushes and shrubs, and Warady was grateful there were no tall trees to topple onto her car.
At the Chuck E. Cheese, panicked families with small children clamored to leave in a harrowing scene captured on video. Moms were shouting their kids’ names and “Go, go, go!” as flames lapped at bushes outside the windows.
“We can’t get ahead of it”
At about 12:30 p.m., firefighters in Superior began to realize that they were outmatched. One crew in the Sagamore neighborhood told fellow first responders that they were pulling out.
“We’re on Cherokee Avenue and Fox Lane. We have multiple houses on fire,” a strained firefighter said over the radio. “We are backing out of here. We are in heavy fire. Heavy fire.”
Someone who identified themselves as being from Boulder County’s fire command told crews to back down at 12:45 p.m.
“We’re going to try to let the fire burn through and then pick it up on the backside,” the person said. “This thing is just running. We probably have 100 mph winds up here and we can’t get ahead of it”
In reality, however, the fire was already far ahead of firefighters.
Just before 12:50 p.m., someone reported that flames had jumped U.S. 36 and were in Louisville. Wood pallets were burning behind the Home Depot.
The fire was also heading toward the Coal Creek Golf Course.
“The air had gone to a deep, smoky gray”
At 1:13 p.m., Gwen Brodsky sent a clipped message to her coworkers from her home in Coal Creek Ranch in Louisville. “Under mandatory evacuation. Leaving now.”
She was about to lead a virtual conference call when her phone, her husband’s phone and the house phone all rang at the same time with reverse-911 calls ordering them to “evacuate immediately.”
For the previous two hours, Brodsky had been peering out the window at the sky, an eerie shade of brown and red, and watching ferocious winds blow Christmas wrapping paper and cereal boxes down her street. She’d been outside to secure the lawn furniture and pull in her trash bin.
Brodsky, an environmental consultant, figured it was a dust storm, kicked up by wind blowing through a nearby construction site. She smelled smoke at one point and asked her 13-year-old twins if someone was burning a candle. Her husband brushed it off, telling her she probably just smelled the barbecue brisket sandwich he’d just made for lunch.
From their home in Coal Creek Ranch, down the hill from Avista Hospital, there is no view to the west — the direction of the fire.
Too distracted to make her own lunch, Brodsky was preparing for her conference call when the evacuation notice came. She and her husband, James, rushed to a window.
“Do we have 90 seconds or do we have 15 minutes?” they wondered, before telling the twins in a “firm, clear voice” to grab a set of clothing and throw it in a bag.
They were out of the house in two cars within 10 minutes, carrying a drawer of files, a baby album, a fire box of documents and a hamster named Percy. The car doors nearly ripped off in the wind. It took two of them to shut one. They had no plan except to drive east.
“The air was no longer brown, it had gone to a deep, smoky gray,” Brodsky said. “At that moment, we knew it was fire.”
They hit gridlock on Dillon Road, because everyone was headed east, too. But even in those terrifying moments, filled with the magnitude of life or death, Brodsky was struck by the civility of her community. “It was not ‘save myself,’” she said, describing how people were merging and creating extra lanes while communicating with their eyes. “It was ‘save ourselves.’”
Watching houses burn from Colorado 128
David Gross was on vacation when he learned at 2:41 p.m. that the fire had reached his neighborhood south of Harper Lake along McCaslin Boulevard in Louisville. A neighbor had rescued their cat, Charlotte, but everything they owned — minus the clothes they brought to Mexico — was reduced to ash and melted metal. The garage collapsed onto his wife’s car.
Gross and his wife flew home the next morning and snuck into the neighborhood, walking from Harper Lake to their address on Arapahoe Circle.
“The entire neighborhood was like a war zone,” he said. “There was the one, obligatory house in the middle of it all that was still standing. It’s just like it disappeared into thin air.”
He couldn’t stop thinking about the bushes and trees he had planted over the past 30 years, the results of hours and hours he had spent on his landscaping hobby. Gross and his wife are hoping to rebuild, and they’re meeting with their neighbors via Zoom, as they take one step toward recovery at a time.
“The first thing I did,” Gross said, “was go out and buy clothes.”
At 3:40 p.m., Andy Jacobs was parked at a pullout along Colorado 128 with a view into his Rock Creek neighborhood, watching it burn. A woman standing near him saw her house catch fire and began to cry. He put his hand on her back.
Six hours after the first report of flames, by about 5 p.m., the wind subsided and the Marshall fire stopped its spread.
Even so, the homes it consumed burned through the night.
In the light of day, authorities counted 991 destroyed homes and businesses, entire subdivisions reduced to piles of ash, a few solitary chimneys still standing.
Now, the Brodskys, whose house was destroyed in the fire, have moved to a rented home in Broomfield. They’re wearing borrowed clothes and thinking “hourly” of things they lost in their home in Louisville. “If it’s a structure fire that is only your house, you feel a little like, ‘Why me?’ But when it’s an entire neighborhood, it lifts you out of yourself,” Gwen Brodsky said. “It’s about us. It’s a collective.”
Emergency radio audio provided by Broadcastify.
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