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The Fire Next Time


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Barney Thinnes walks through what remains of his home on West Mulberry St. in Louisville, CO to collect pieces of a birdbath from his backyard. He’s tall with the slender frame of a hiker, one that bends under the weight of what he’s carrying up to the street. Several of his neighbors have made similar piles of dinner plates, broken kettle grills, and pieces of furniture that are meant to live elsewhere. This isn’t the first time Thinnes has come back to reclaim what’s his after the Marshall Fire, and it won’t be the last.

As the calendar turns to spring, signs of life are beginning to appear all around the idyllic Centennial Heights subdivision. Advertisements for spring baseball camps are taped to light posts, and a steady stream of people are walking their dogs along the Powerline Trail past Fireside Elementary.

But the smell of charcoal is inescapable when the wind comes through just right. Many of the homes that withstood the Marshall Fire have significant smoke damage and dumpsters full of drywall and insulation in their driveways. The upper middle-class neighborhood that once stood tall against the horizon now provides a perfect view of Centennial Highway and the outdoor hockey rink at the Louisville Recreation Center nearly a half mile away.

“You know, all this rebuilding stuff is going to take a while,” Thinnes told Yellow Scene Magazine in an interview, “but I think we’re going to make it out okay.”

Boulder County Wildfire Risk Map

The charred remains of homes aren’t the only part of the rebuilding process many Boulder County residents say they are concerned about. Not only did it raze more than 1,000 homes, several local businesses, and claim the lives of two community members over New Year’s weekend, but it also exposed fissures in Colorado’s emergency notification system. City officials say the fire caused more than $500 million in damages, though many families say they lost much more.

Thinnes takes off his work gloves and wipes his brow with the inside lip of his baseball cap. The hat is a loose fit, like it hasn’t been worn in a while. It’s unseasonably warm for a Sunday in March, and sweat is starting to stain his green t-shirt. He unplugs a set of charred Christmas lights that were still wrapped around the tree in his front yard. Out back, all 11 trees he planted within the last few years are damaged beyond recognition. He gets down on a knee and wipes away a few shards of ceramic pottery from a planter by his feet.

“Looks like the perennials we planted are coming back this year,” Thinnes says. “I’ll have to come back and dig them up another time.”

Mulberry Strong. Photo: Irina Ratsek

“We thought we were safe living here.”

For Bonnie Gosler and her family, safety and security are their two top priorities as they readjust to life after the fire in a changing neighborhood.

There are burn scars littered throughout the neighborhood. Some of her neighbors have resorted to wearing face masks wherever they go; others say they just don’t like how the neighborhood smells like stale barbecue. Meanwhile, there’s a constant chatter about the health impacts from the hydro-mulch and other chemicals that were laid to contain the ash.

Gosler told Yellow Scene in an interview that her house sustained significant smoke damage like other homes in the area. It took several weeks of professional cleaning and remediation before the family felt comfortable moving in again. The family lost a few personal items and several clothing items in the fire, but Gosler says the most important thing they lost is their sense of security.

She’s also noticed the fire has taken away some parts of their six-year-old daughter’s personality. A once bubbly and vivacious child is now quieter on their walks to school because of the blackened holes that are filled with rubble. At home, Gosler says the two often talk about her friends that no longer go to Fireside Elementary because the fire forced them to move away.

“We thought we were safe living here,” Gosler adds, “but this was a real wake-up call.”

Mulberry Strong. Photo: Robert Davis

The family is also still dealing with emotional trauma from evacuating. The Goslers left just after 11 a.m. on December 30. The sky was glowing bright red, and the air was thick with soot and ash. Gosler hurriedly packed a bag of spare clothes, toiletries, and some necessities before getting her six- and nine-year-old children into the car, their eyes wide with fear.

By the time they got on the road, the air was stifling. Gosler, a technical writer by trade, checked her phone several times to see if Boulder County authorities had sent out any evacuation instructions. If they did, they didn’t send one to her, she says.

According to a report by 9News, only one out of five emergency alerts received about fire were confirmed, meaning the recipient followed the instructions to Press 1 to confirm. More than 24,000 alerts were sent to landlines, email addresses, and cell phones, but just over 4,600 were confirmed.

Colorado’s Office of Emergency Management offered to help Boulder County officials send out evacuation alerts using the state’s Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which grants officials access to cellphones like an Amber Alert. However, Boulder County declined the offer because they were already using another system to send alerts, according to the report.

Like many other families, the Goslers hit several roadblocks on their way out of town. The fire forced the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to shut down Foothills Highway, also known as US 36, and divert traffic eastward along Baseline Rd. and S. Boulder Rd. through Louisville and Superior. This decision ultimately combined the evacuees from three towns onto a handful of roads leading out of the area.

Several people posted videos on social media of themselves sitting still in traffic for multiple hours as the fires moved toward their cars. Others posted pictures of a hellfire haze surrounding the towns that seemed endlessly thick. The Goslers spent a couple of hours on S. Boulder Rd. before reaching Hwy 287 and heading south toward Arvada.

The family spent three weeks shuffling between hotels and Airbnb properties. Gosler adds that the experience was challenging for their nine-year-old son who is on the autism spectrum.

Now that the family is back in the home, Gosler says the lingering smell of smoke is a constant reminder of how close the fire came.

“It was a very traumatic experience for all of us,” Gosler said.

Powerline Trail. Photo: Robert Davis

Caught Off Guard

David Beebe, Fire Chief for the Mountain View Fire Protection District (MVFPD), recognized the danger the Marshall Fire posed almost immediately after arriving on-scene.

As a 17-year veteran of one of Colorado’s most experienced wildfire fighting brigades, Beebe thought he’d seen it all. He was a part of the crews that fought back the Overland Fire and the Fourmile Canyon Fire, which claimed a total of 10,000 acres of dense woodlands.

He also regularly helps train new recruits at Eldorado Springs Station 9, which was the first station to respond to the Marshall Fire. The station is tucked into a hillside and runs up against an open field of grassland, shrubs, and a few trees, making it an ideal place for firefighters to learn how to fight wildfires.

Following the Marshall Fire, Beebe says he’s seen all the data, read all the reports, and has listened to every critic tell him about what went wrong that day. Still, he comes to the same solemn conclusion each time and says it with a steadiness one should expect from a veteran firefighter: “There isn’t much else we could have done that day, from an internal perspective,” Beebe told YS.

Beebe says the decentralized emergency response system that Colorado firefighters use to allocate resources was one of his team’s biggest hindrances that day. The on-scene incident commander is responsible for telling dispatchers what resources to send and where they can be found. Beebe says this task was almost impossible to perform during the Marshall Fire because of its quick acceleration.

According to audio files obtained by the Colorado Sun, several other calls came in shortly after the Marshall Fire was first reported that also diverted resources out of the area. One firefighter can be heard calling for residents to be evacuated. Another put in a call for additional units as the fire, “moved through the property… and into some homes.”

Meanwhile, the environmental conditions proved to be overwhelming. Not only was the surrounding grassland especially dry after receiving less rain than usual that December, but the 90 mph winds that were measured that day helped accelerate the blaze much faster than firefighters anticipated. The fire even burned up the backup generator for the Town of Superior’s water pump, which caused fire hydrants in several neighborhoods to stop working.

Beebe says, with a hardened glare, that the location of the fire was also, “a little surprising.” MVFPD’s territory includes thick woods stretching from Flagstaff to Gross Reservoir, which are the places that Beebe says are typically more prone to wildfires.

Meanwhile, town officials had to work double duty to coordinate the evacuation with federal agencies. For example, the BNSF railroad, which crosses the two major evacuation routes, kept running during the evacuation until officials called Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, and told him to stop the train.

Beebe has been pleading with local leaders to address the myriad gaps in Colorado’s emergency notification system that were exposed during the fire. This includes providing additional funding and support for resource mobilization and improving communication between local, state, and federal agencies.

Beebe says that wildfire should become a higher priority topic in the General Assembly following the fire. He’s concerned that support might only last until the next emergency, and by that time, it could be too late.

Photo: Kayla Gaines

Fertile Ground for Wildfire

Deborah McNamara is a naturally energetic person. She loves the outdoors, exploring her spirituality, and writing stories about the journeys of motherhood. For the last few years she has been pushing local lawmakers to take a stronger stand against climate change and says the Marshall Fire set her into overdrive.

As a resident of north Boulder, McNamara has a personal connection to wildfires after surviving the Cal Wood fire back in 2018. She told YS in an interview that she could see the smoke from Cal Wood climbing over her neighbors’ homes and felt an eerily similar fear when the Marshall Fire broke out.

McNamara lives in a more rural enclave of Boulder, one that isn’t often recalled when one thinks of Colorado as a home for Twitter and Google. Her house is less than a mile from open spaces like Wonderland Park and its numerous hiking trails. McNamara says these are the areas that she most commonly associated with wildfires. After the Marshall Fire, however, she realized just how susceptible Colorado is to the natural disaster.

“This was the second time in as many years that my family could see a wildfire from our bedroom windows,” McNamara said. “I’m just not sure that wildfires have really been a top priority for lawmakers.”

Most people would be busy enough working full time as a campaign director for the climate action group 350 Colorado, but McNamara is also raising three young sons and wants them to grow up in a world where wildfires are much less of a threat. However, she realizes those days may be far into the future.  

According to the most recent seasonal outlook from the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center (RMACC), an interagency environmental organization, Colorado’s wildfire risk is elevated because of extreme drought conditions across the state which “promote the availability of receptive fuels as well as rapid fire spread potential during springtime wind events.” Colorado’s eastern plains and southeastern corner have the highest risk for wildfire because of these conditions, the outlook said.

Colorado’s wildfires are becoming increasingly destructive. The state has spent more than $78 million on fire suppression activities since 2018, according to data from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. More than 1.4 million acres have gone up in smoke over the same period. 

The lingering effects that wildfires have on individuals and families can be just as economically damaging to communities as the wildfire itself. 

Wildfires often increase air pollution which, in turn, decreases economic productivity because people stay home from school and work, McNamara said. They are also damaging Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry, which contributed more than $9.6 billion in value-added gross domestic product and supports more than 120,000 jobs across Colorado in 2020, according to the Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

Colorado’s residential areas, like the one McNamara lives in, stand on the losing end of Colorado’s increasing frequency of wildfires. According to a Colorado State Forest Service report, only 42 percent of Boulder County residents live in areas with little or no risk of wildfire. Many of the areas with the lowest risk are in the unincorporated parts of the county whereas the areas of highest risk are in the neighborhoods surrounding the University of Colorado Boulder and Foothills Highway.

350 Colorado is calling on Polis’ administration to sign an executive order declaring a climate emergency. The group is also pushing lawmakers to phase out fossil fuel use by 2030 and shut down all coal-fired power plants by 2025. McNamara described these goals as aggressive but necessary to meet the scale of devastation wrought by recent wildfires.

The group also wants to see Colorado expand the Office of Just Transition within the Department of Labor and Employment. This office is responsible for helping workers in the fossil fuel industry move into clean energy jobs with additional job training or placement services.

“What we’re seeing in terms of wildfire and drought is getting worse,” McNamara said. “We need our leaders to understand that and respond accordingly.”

Photo: Irina Ratsek

Legislative Response

One place that’s still emotionally draining for Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann to visit after the Marshall Fire is the grocery store. What one symbolized as a place of community can now be a reminder of the grief and suffering caused by the fire.

“It just increases the proportion of the impact to see so many people who lost their homes or some of their favorite belongings,” Stolzmann told YS.

It wasn’t long after the fire started that soot and ash began billowing through Louisville’s historic Main Street. As Stolzmann watched the smoke fold over landmarks like Empire Restaurant with its 1950s-style marquee and The Huckleberry Diner just down the street from the municipal center, she knew the fire wasn’t like the others Colorado has seen recently.

She describes her community’s response to the fire as resilient, one that nearly matched the devastation of the fire itself. Local businesses and nonprofit organizations have hosted several charity events, and she says there is an “all-around sense of gratefulness” that more lives weren’t lost.

Like many in her community, Stolzmann worries that Colorado’s legislative response to its recent wildfires has been lackluster at best.

Gov. Jared Polis has signed several bills into law since 2018 that seek to bolster Colorado’s wildfire response system. In all, lawmakers have appropriated more than $113 million toward wildfire mitigation efforts over the last three sessions. They also passed bills that modified the state Wildfire Risk Mitigation Grant Program to provide rural areas with more firefighting resources and improved health care benefits for firefighters.

Lawmakers kicked their wildfire fighting efforts into high gear following Colorado’s destructive wildfire season in 2020. That year, state lawmakers appropriated nearly $60 million for wildfire fighting agencies to purchase new equipment and increase forest health and wildfire mitigation programs.

Colorado lawmakers have also delayed some important climate rules despite calls from environmental groups to do more to address climate change. For example, lawmakers delayed the implementation of Colorado’s Clean Truck Strategy until 2023, which requires medium- and heavy-duty trucks to cut their vehicle emissions by 45% by 2050.

Federal lawmakers have also introduced the Western Wildfire Support Act, a bill that seeks to increase emergency funding for wildfires, establish a federal wildfire management plan, and support additional firefighting training efforts. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Neguse in the House of Representatives and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-New Mexico) in the Senate. However, the House has not held a hearing on the bill since January, and the Senate has not debated the bill’s counterpart since last year.

Stolzmann told YS that she has already had initial conversations with her peer mayors in Boulder County and other state partners about improving communication for the next time there is an evacuation.

She points to Houston, Texas as a model for how city evacuation plans should operate. The city added additional Bluetooth communication devices that communicate travel times with the Texas Department of Transportation after Hurricane Rita in 2006. This system allows them to adjust evacuation routes and ease traffic.

Stolzmann is also planning to take these ambitions on the campaign trail for a seat on the Boulder County Board of Commissioners when her term ends in 2023. For now, Stolzmann says she is heartened by her community’s continued support for one another. “This level of devastation was pretty unimaginable before it happened,” Stolzmann says, “but, I think it’s changed a lot about how we talk about a lot of things, especially emergency preparedness.”

Mulberry Street. Photo: Robert Davis

“I feel like we’re just now getting back into the swing of things.”

While officials continue to sort out the cause of the fire, the Goslers and several other families continue to slowly rebuild their lives. “I feel like we’re just now getting back into the swing of things, but we still have so far to go,” Gosler said.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, several groups quickly set up “hubs of warmth,” as Gosler says, to help survivors reconnect with the community and forget about the trauma they endured. These hubs ranged from clothing and food drives that were hosted at local schools to the Red Cross shelters that popped up nearby. 

Gosler says she felt like a part of the community again after receiving a donation of food and clothes from Fireside Elementary. At the time, her daughter had just two outfits to wear because smoke had damaged the rest. Gosler said watching her eyes light up as she got a new, clean shirt to wear made her forget about everything else that was happening because of the fire, if only for a little while.

Organizations like the Boulder-Longmont Association of Realtors (BOLO REALTORS(R)) also pitched in to help connect fire victims with housing. The group also raised more than $2 million on their own to fund grants that can help families put their lives back together.

Boulder County is trying to help residents move on in other ways as well. The county is offering mental health services to fire victims, and it has already adopted a new emergency notification system that sends alerts to cellphones without users having to opt in. The messages will also be broadcast in both English and Spanish.

When asked how she feels about the future, Gosler said she is very afraid Her family wants to buy a home nearby and settle down, but those hopes are growing dimmer given Colorado’s historically low supply of real estate inventory. Meanwhile, some of the charred plots that remain after the Marshall Fire are selling for $500,000 or more, which makes it increasingly difficult for Gosler to imagine staying in the area.

There are still several things trapping Gosler in the past. Many neighborhoods still have rubble and debris from the fire, leaving a lingering scent of charcoal in the air. The snow is also a reminder since a snowstorm came and dropped an eerie stillness over the neighborhood the day the fire stopped during. 

Gosler says she still thinks about the fire at odd times of the day. Sometimes she thinks about it when she’s cooking, other times when she’s alone with her thoughts. 

“The snow came a day too late for us,” Gosler says, “It was very, very cruel.” 

Author

Robert Davis
Robert Davis is an award-winning freelance journalist in Denver who writes about housing, homelessness, and poverty for several local and national publications. His work has appeared in Denver Voice, The Progressive Magazine, Invisible People, and many more.

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