SUPERIOR – Out one window was bright sunshine. Out the other, wildfire smoke billowing over pastures.
Brenda Leighton started grabbing things as she scrambled through her house of 18 years in Superior’s Sagamore neighborhood. A couple pieces of jewelry. A few mementos. It was her first-ever evacuation. One she never imagined.
“When I opened my garage door, wow that wind. I mean we get wind, but not like that. Not in December,” she said. “It went from bluebird to black. I was honking my horn as I left my neighborhood. It was so dark. So dense. But glow-y, you know? It was so eerie. I never thought of fire like that. Not here.”
The apocalyptic sweep of the Marshall fire Thursday reduced Leighton’s home and at least 990 other homes and businesses to ashes in a matter of hours as it raced across 6,000 acres in towns southeast of Boulder. It only stopped when snow moved in.
The fire has forced Coloradans to reassess their thinking about wildfire. About the fire season. About the wildland-urban interface. About climate change. Again.
The reminders looked like this: Fire does not need a forest to move. It can travel through the air. The Colorado wildfire season isn’t a summer problem. During extended periods of drought, the threat of uncontrollable fire is an every-day-of-the-year affair. And the wildland-urban interface, that fire-prone line where the city meets wooded mountains, is not just tucked up canyons where fire trucks can’t reach.
Gov. Jared Polis marveled at how a wildfire so destructive could happen in urban communities like Superior and Louisville, noting that the Marshall fire was “an alignment of many of the worst possible factors that firefighters fear.”
“This was fundamentally an urban and suburban fire,” Polis said of the flames that tore through densely packed homes and crossed many miles, far from the Smokey Bear landscape normally associated with megablazes. “The Costco we all shop at. The Target we buy our kids’ clothes at. All surrounded and damaged.”
The Marshall fire, the most destructive in Colorado history, represents a paradigm shift in the way we think about wildfire risk in Colorado: Few parts of our state are completely safe.
“I’ve managed quite a few fires in my day, and this was not something I ever expected to see in my lifetime in Colorado,” said Michael Smith, the Marshall fire’s incident commander. “With the winds the way they were and the fire behavior, the fire was moving basically at the same speed as the wind. We didn’t actively fight the fire for the first few hours. It was really about life safety.”
The 2018 Camp fire in northern California caused a shift in thinking after it engulfed the entire mountain town of Paradise and killed 86 people. Wildfire was suddenly an urban threat. The Camp fire moved through the forest too fast for many people to flee, catching them off guard in their homes, in their cars and at their jobs.
Colorado fire officials and politicians have been warning for years that a Paradise-style wildfire disaster could occur here. But they thought it would happen in tree-filled Conifer or Evergreen, areas of the state where wildland fire is something people have to accept to live there. Not in Superior and Louisville.
About a thousand miles due west from the Marshall fire, Paradise Mayor Steve Crowder watched televised reports of the disaster that in some ways mirrored his town’s experience. Crowder was struck by how the wind-driven flames near Boulder, like the ones that leveled his home and small business three years ago, moved with unnerving speed.
“The first thing that caught my ear,” he said, “was that they said (the Marshall fire) was spreading like a football field a second, the same comparison they made with our fire. Within the town of Paradise, we had 160 spot fires, probably 4 miles ahead of the (main) fire. It was wind driven, just throwing spot fires out in front of it.”
The Camp fire that destroyed Paradise, like the Marshall fire, followed warm, dry weather. And, in another striking similarity, moisture finally arrived, but too late to help firefighters. While Paradise sat in a heavily wooded area, the fire didn’t hop-scotch high in the trees. It blew across the ground, an irresistible force powered by 60 mph winds.
“The fire chief at the time told me there were 1,000 hand crews in the state of California,” Crowder recalled. “And if we’d had every one of them on the site, they still couldn’t have stopped it.”
“This fire is an unfortunate reminder”
Becky Bolinger remembers sitting at home in Loveland in the fall of 2020, watching the flames of the Cameron Peak fire crest the Continental Divide in the distance.
“That was my reminder that I live in the wildland-urban interface,” said the climatologist who monitors drought for Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center.
That interface, known as the WUI, takes in the entire Front Range corridor, from Wyoming to New Mexico, Bolinger said.
“I think some people might not realize this,” she said. “They live down the street from a Costco in the middle of pavement and buildings. This fire is an unfortunate reminder that a lot of us are living in that zone and with climate change, these kinds of events will remain an ongoing issue.”
Metro Denver endured a historic stretch without precipitation this summer and fall. From July 1 through Dec. 29, Denver has been the driest since 1872, when the National Weather Service started keeping records. And the 1.08 inches of precipitation measured in the second half of 2021 is a full inch less than the previous lack-of-wetness record set in 1962.
But it was wet this spring. The grasses in prairies and pastures grew tall. Then it got warm. Dry. For months, the dense grass withered, becoming desiccated in a fall that was too hot for too long. Then, on a December day when the ground should have been snowy, tornado-like winds fueled a spark in the tinder-dry grass, and the Marshall Mesa open space exploded into what would become the most destructive fire in Colorado history.
The Marshall fire — Bolinger called it a wildfire but then corrected herself, calling it a “firestorm” — didn’t need trees. It didn’t even travel on the ground. It moved through the air, fanning embers across long spans in seconds.
In 2017, state foresters measured the risk of wildfire in Colorado and estimated 3 million residents in the state lived in the wildland-urban interface, where fires could reach them.
Leighton’s home in Sagamore abuts the Marshall Mesa open space east of Marshall Lake, where cows graze and cyclists pedal. On the other side is a big-box shopping center.
Those state forest scientists ranked the burn probability of open space surrounding Marshall Lake as “very high.”
(The Marshall fire started somewhere around that open space. The National Weather Service in Boulder reported winds gusting in that area at 105 mph at 9:51 a.m. Thursday. The official cause of the fire remains under investigation. )
But it wasn’t just those adjacent to the Marshall Mesa open space who were affected by the Marshall fire Thursday.
People miles away in Louisville, across U.S. 36, were forced to evacuate because of the fire. Dozens of homes even burned, some at the ends of cul-de-sacs and far from fields or trees.
Jerry Olson, who has lived near the intersection of West South Boulder Road and Washington Avenue in Louisville for 30 years, said he recently started worrying about wildfire risk despite being far away from a forest.
“It was in the back of my mind,” he said. “When I started seeing the big fires in the mountains, it was in the back of my mind that ‘you know what, there’s nothing but grass between here and the mountains.’ I thought it could happen. I didn’t think it really would.”
Then on Thursday he looked out his back window and saw an orange glow. Then he saw smoke.
“I’ve never ever evacuated ever in my life,” he said. “It felt really stupid to actually have to stick stuff in my car. I thought ‘this is really dumb’ but I did it and sure enough we were told to evacuate at 2:30.” (His house was undamaged.)
Tom Moore, who has lived near Harper Lake in Louisville for 27 years, never thought wildfire would be a risk. “There’s no forest,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
But on Friday morning he was snapping photos of two nearby homes that were destroyed by the Marshall fire. They were still smoldering as people milled about in disbelief.
“This was a really nice house,” he said, gesturing to what was left of one of the homes. “They just did a complete remodel a few years ago.”
Every Coloradan should be thinking about wildfire
That 2017 Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment Update by the Colorado State Forest Service quantified and classified the threat of wildfire for the entire state.
Amanda West Fordham, the associate director of science and data for the Colorado State Forest Service, remembers fielding a lot of inquiries after that report showing more than half of the state’s residents live in areas prone to fire.
“Isn’t the WUI mostly forested?” she said of the questions that followed the assessment. “I told them our model is forests, shrubs and grassland. Anywhere human-built structures and flammable vegetation can mix. That’s a lot of places.”
Fordham and her colleagues will soon begin an update of that report and they likely will include a new measurement beyond just identifying risks within the wildland urban interface.
“We will be considering how fire moves within the WUI,” Fordham said, referring to the wildland-urban interface. “We were already planning it, but this fire is going to provide us with on-the-ground data.”
When they measure the risk of fire, scientists like Fordham don’t consider homes and buildings as fuel. They are the values at risk. Even though, as evidenced Thursday night, homes most certainly can be the fuel for uncontrollable fires. The research on how fire marches from home to home could spur new rules, like building codes in California that require fire-resistant building materials.
It’s something everyone in the state should be thinking about, Fordham said.
“I totally understand how people would never imagine they are at risk in these areas,” she said, recalling, like Bolinger, sitting in her home last October wondering if embers from the Cameron Peak fire would reach her city, Fort Collins. “If there is a lot of flammable vegetation within a mile of your home, you could be in a fire-prone ecosystem and maybe you should look into things like fire-resistant shingles.”
Bolinger also hopes to see climate mitigation strategies and technology emerging from extreme events like the Marshall fire.
Maybe it’s time to bury more power lines leading to homes. Or work with energy companies to cut power when winds reach certain speeds, like California’s “public safety power shut-offs.” Or find more fire-resistant materials for homes. Or install outdoor fire-suppression systems on houses.
The devastation of the Marshall fire could have happened to any community on Colorado’s Front Range, Bolinger said.
“It’s like the tornado that blows through and hits one house but leaves another untouched,” she said. “One gets lucky and the other does not. But the risk is there either way.”
When a fire like the Marshall fire blows through, however, there’s not much anyone can do to stop it.
“There’s no technology or equipment that’s available to halt this kind of fire,” Gov. Polis said.
In Paradise, the utility company whose faulty equipment sparked the Camp fire has begun replacing its wires underground — a process Crowder, the mayor, says has proved faster and less costly than originally thought. Meanwhile, the community has embraced a simple mantra: defensible space.
There’s so little margin for error, in space or time.
“I don’t believe we have a fire season anymore,” Crowder said. “It’s 12 months a year. I’m seeing fires start — yours being one of them — where I wouldn’t think it’s a place I’d be concerned about living with fire. I’m beginning to think no place is safe.”
Leighton, who lost her home in the Sagamore neighborhood, remembers her neighbors in the Original Town section of Superior suffering damage when Coal Creek flooded in the devastating 2013 floods that swept down the foothills. She remembers the wildfires that scorched part of Boulder County up in the mountains in 2015. She’s felt those big winds buffet her home, but they usually arrive deeper in winter.
She’s coming to grips with how climate change has altered her life and the lives of 370 of her neighbors in the completely leveled Sagamore neighborhood.
“So where can I go and not deal with this kind of devastation? Is there a place? Out on a boat in the middle of the ocean? Do we go to Mars?” she said. “Where do we go to escape this?”
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