The Marshall fire should serve as a tipping point for the entire state of Colorado when it comes to mitigating wildfires, and if the December fire that killed two people and cost upwards of $2 billion in damages does not, then people will continue to die and more property will be lost.
That dire warning came in a lengthy report released this week by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control that offers lessons learned from the fire while also painting a dramatic portrait of how the wildfire spread and the efforts people took to fight it and save lives. The narrative describes strong winds ripping the doors off fire trucks and blowing flaming chunks of wood around neighborhoods where houses were burning at the rate of one foot per second.
“In the aftermath of the Marshall fire, one wonders if a tipping point exists that will spur large-scale collective action to address well-documented and severe risks to the lives and livelihood of Coloradans,” the report said. “If the Marshall fire is not that tipping point, it may not exist at all…”
One question that was not answered in the report is what started the Dec. 30 fire that burned 6,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses. But fault-finding was not the purpose of the report, said Caley Pruitt, a fire prevention and control spokeswoman.
“We really hope this report is going to be used to educate other communities on how to respond to a large-scale urban wildfire,” Pruitt said. “We’re trying to tell a story of what happened and hope other fire departments, not just in Colorado, but around the world will know.”
Carrie Haverfield, a Boulder County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said the investigation into the wildfire’s cause is ongoing. The sheriff’s office hopes to complete interviews in the near future and then do a final review before identifying the origin, she said.
Along with a strong warning about future wildfires in Colorado, the report delivered disheartening news for people who have not started rebuilding their homes incinerated by the Marshall fire. It warns that Louisville and Superior — the two Boulder County municipalities hit hardest by the fire — will be at risk for another similar fire within a couple of years. And they are not alone in that risk, the report said.
“As climate change continues, more area will burn on average, exposing more structures, destroying more communities and killing more people. The towns of Superior and Louisville are not unique in their setting, adjacent to wildland fuels near areas of Chinook-induced rotors,” the report said, referring to high winds. “Given how quickly wildland vegetation will rebound from the Marshall fire, the towns may find themselves at the same level of risk within a year or two.”
As urban growth continues in Colorado, it will take a multi-layered approach to prevent catastrophic damage, including local governments changing building codes and the state and federal government improving wildland management. The report also ponders whether local governments have the wherewithal to enforce changes.
“It may well be that only economic drivers, such as exponentially rising home insurance premiums, may be the only factor able to induce change at the scale necessary in Colorado,” the report stated. “Without change, wildfires that destroy structures will increase in both frequency and severity in perpetuity, not just in Boulder County but in nearly every area of Colorado.”
“This is the wave of the future”
Already, insurance companies doing business in some areas of Colorado are requiring changes.
During an Oct. 21 public meeting, Colorado Insurance Commissioner Michael Conway said insurance companies are increasingly asking homebuilders and homeowners to build more fire-resistant houses, which are more expensive.
“Folks, candidly, I truly believe this is the wave of the future,” Conway said. “We’re going to have to adapt. We live in a world where climate is impacting and climate is changing and there are very real impacts as a result of that.”
One example offered in the report is the wooden fencing that is so common in subdivisions across Colorado.
While wooden fences were not the main culprit in the Marshall fire, they helped propel it, the report said.
The report compared the Sagamore subdivision in Superior to one on McCaslin Boulevard in Louisville. Sagamore was a total loss while the neighborhood on McCaslin was not, and those who studied the fire determined that some of the difference was the distances between open spaces and wooden fences next to homes.
The homes just east of McCaslin had 30 to 50 feet of grass next to the fences, and embers landing there did not ignite into fast-burning flames, the report said.
“Unfortunately, in many neighborhoods, not just Sagamore, fire impinged directly on wooden fences which in turn burned for significantly longer duration, launched larger embers with longer duration times towards other houses, and in many cases connected directly to the homes themselves,” the report said.
The report was produced by experts from state, local and federal agencies who studied everything from the Dec. 30 weather patterns to hospital evacuations to emergency communications. Each section lists bullet points on lessons learned.
The findings were presented earlier this month to firefighters across the state and will be shared via national firefighting resources, Pruitt said.
“I’m going to get trapped and I’m going to die”
But it’s the personal stories from firefighters, hospital nurses, police officers and utility workers that make the report gripping to read.
Firefighters from Mountain View Fire Station 9, who responded to a blaze earlier in the day called the Middle Fork fire, told investigators that the wind rocked their engine as they drove toward the Marshall fire. Dust and gravel made it hard to see the road, and once they arrived on scene, the wind ripped the truck’s door off its hinges, forcing the crew to use webbing to tie it closed, the report said.
The engine commander said the wind ripped his helmet off his head and sent it flying into the smoke. He never found it.
Firefighters also described wind so strong that it was blowing water away from flames and evaporating it.
“Repositioned at the north flank of the fire, they found that the stream from their hoses was pushed back into their faces, blinding them, or was atomized by the wind,” the report said of one engine crew’s struggle. “Any attempt to extinguish the fire failed.”
One firefighter said, “Embers were making it into his clothes and creating burns that felt like fire ants.” First responders described burn marks on their skin, red and burning eyes, and what they called the “Marshall cough,” which lasted for weeks.
The firefighter who said the embers felt like fire ants also said, “At one point, he got hit in the chest with a big chunk of something heavy, almost like someone was trying to get his attention.” When trying to knock on a house’s door to make sure people were not inside, he lay in the fetal position with his hands over his head and unable to open his eyes even though he was wearing safety glasses.
“It was pouring down embers!” he was quoted as saying in the report. “He staggered to the house and pounded on the door and checked inside before making a retreat.”
Boulder County sheriff’s Sgt. M. Sanderson tried to rescue both people who died in the fire — 69-year-old Robert Sharpe and 91-year-old Nadine Turnbull.
Sharpe, who was wearing a motorcycle helmet, was surrounded by fire when Sanderson drove by his property on Marshall Road in unincorporated Boulder County.
“Sanderson was screaming at the man, but couldn’t project over the wind. He opened his truck’s door and “yelled, ‘You’ve got to get out!’ The man waved him off,” the report said.
Later, Sanderson saw two adults running up a driveway in Superior to flag him down for help evacuating Turnbull and her pets. As Sanderson got out of his truck, he lifted his sunglasses to try to see the house, which was surrounded by tall grass and “a maze of stored items.” The wind ripped the sunglasses off his forehead, leaving Sanderson without any eye protection from debris whipping in the air.
Sanderson tried to follow the people toward the house, but the fire was surrounding him. It cut off his path to the house and he could see it moving between him and his truck.
“A huge gust of superheated air and the dry trees around the house went up,” the report said. ”As he rounded the corner approaching the door, the home shielded him from the direct blast of heat as flames rolled over the roof of the home. There was a sound ‘like when you’re a kid and you put a match on lighter fluid.’ Sanderson noted, ‘Fire has cut me off from where they went in…there’s fire between me and my truck… I can’t make entry… I’m going to get trapped and I’m going to die.’”
Sanderson could not save Turnbull. But he continued helping with evacuations for hours, eventually retreating when an ember landed under his shirt collar and burned his neck.
Pruitt said the report’s authors want the public to read these stories to understand the danger first-responders faced and how hard they worked to save lives.
“A big thing we don’t want people to look past is those personal stories from the public safety professionals,” she said. “That whole community came together. Granted, there was a lot of hardship with communication, but it was an amazing feat.”