After a rough year, new wildfire warnings have Boulder, Colorado on edge
Fanned by 100 mile an hour winds in the dead of winter, the Marshall Fire raced into the suburbs east of Boulder last December. It burned from home to home, igniting a whole shopping center and a hotel.
More than three months later, that hotel's eerie four story high elevator shaft is the only thing that remains in the rubble. Suburban neighborhoods around the Boulder turnpike are leveled. More than a thousand homes were destroyed, making Marshall the most destructive wildfire ever in Colorado. The steady hum of giant bulldozers is heard all around, as the machines scoop up twisted burnt debris; torched patio furniture, smashed ceramic garden pots and even the skeletons of charred cars.
"When I drive through our neighborhood and it looks like a war zone, I can't help but just be still shocked," says Lonni Pearce, who lost everything in the fire.
The University of Colorado professor was underinsured - a common problem after disasters - and she's not sure she and her family will rebuild. For now, they feel lucky to have found a place nearby to rent. But this spring, as the fierce winds like those that whipped the Marshall Fire into an inferno have returned to the area, so has the trauma.
"It just felt like, ok, can this really be happening again?" Pearce says.
So many red flags
It's become hard to remember a day recently when the heavily populated - and tinder dry - Colorado Front Range wasn't under a red flag warning for extreme fire danger. Since the Marshall Fire, there have been several close calls, including the recent NCAR Fire, which forced Arzelia Walker to briefly evacuate her home of forty years in south Boulder.
"You sort of start to feel anxious," Walker says, referring to the winds. "The fact that the Marshall Fire was in the dead of winter is terrifying."
Like a lot of this college town of about 100,000 people at the doorstep of the Rocky Mountains, Walker's neighborhood abuts open space and forest land.
"Our big winds tend to come in the winter so that's not been a problem so much in the past because there's been snow," she says.
But climate change has made winters warmer and drier. The irony of the NCAR Fire, named after the climate change research lab it threatened, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, wasn't lost on many Boulderites. Fortunately, firefighters got a handle on it before it got bigger than 200 acres though.
"Definitely a scare," says Brian Oliver, the wildland division chief for Boulder Fire. "You can see the neighborhood just a couple hundred yards away from the fire line, that black edge there."
Boulder is on edge
On a recent windy afternoon, Oliver stood on the mesa where NCAR sits, with its 360 degree view of the city and its striking flatiron rock formations. Red flag warnings prompted him to station fire engines in strategic places around town. A pair of heavy air tankers was also on call in nearby Fort Collins, assuming it was safe for them to fly in the wind.
"There's definitely a feeling of, I'm not sure the word to use, on edge is a good way to put it," Oliver says. "Because we haven't gotten a break."
Fires, floods, the pandemic, a mass shooting a year ago at the grocery store just down the hill, Oliver says it's been relentless. When the NCAR fire ignited, evacuation alerts went out to an estimated 19,000 people, more than probably needed it, and traffic was bottlenecked. But Oliver says he'd rather be overly cautious than have people trapped behind a fire. Firefighters will never be able to stop modern wildfires like these.
"I equate that to trying to fight a hurricane," he says. "We don't mobilize a force to go turn a hurricane around. We get everybody out of the way and then we try to come back in and clean up after we can."
These aren't the wildfires burning into newly built communities out in the woods and wildland that lately have grabbed headlines. Boulder capped growth and sprawl some 40 years ago. But climate change, Oliver says, is bringing the fires into the city.
Get ready for fire years, not seasons
Federal leaders, including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, toured Boulder County this week trying to sound that alarm. One of their stops was the still charred hillsides of the Calwood Fire in a canyon north of town. In late October of 2020, it burned about 10,000 acres and destroyed homes. The same day, what had been the state's largest wildfire until last year, the Cameron Peak Fire, also ignited in neighboring Larimer County.
"It is clear that fire seasons no longer exist here in Colorado, we have fire years," says Rep. Joe Neguse, the Democratic congressman who represents the two counties. "It is all the more reason and motivation for us to take wildfire mitigation and resiliency seriously."
Neguse touted the $130 million in new fire funding in the infrastructure law President Biden signed in November. It will go to prevention and hiring more fire crews in the western states.
The spending plan won't help the scores of people in crisis in Boulder County right now. But Lonni Pearce, whose home burned down last December, found the news encouraging.
"It feels like this is a little bit of a tipping point," she says. " Okay, things are really real now and we need to, not just as individuals, but as communities, start to do things differently."
From changing landscaping around homes to building codes, Pearce says, westerners have to live with fire now, even in cities.