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Boulder County Is Revamping Their Efforts for Wildfire Mitigation Two Years Post Marshall Fire

Boulder County Is Revamping Their Efforts for Wildfire Mitigation Two Years Post Marshall Fire


December 30, 2021. Louisville. Photo: Patrick Kramer of the Longmont Fire Department

It has been over two years since the Marshall Fire swept through the grasslands of Boulder County. The most destructive fire in Colorado history in terms of buildings destroyed, the fire took the lives of two and created irreparable damage for many more.

The initial response to the fire focused on ensuring safety in the moment but as the dust settled, Boulder County and its residents realized they needed to do more to prevent future events like this one.

As nice as it would be for the Marshall Fire to be a one-off event, a changing climate only increases the likelihood of future destructive fires. Earlier and warmer springs lead to more rapid snowmelt, drying out grasslands and increasing flammability of the surrounding environment. Additionally, as populations increase, more communities are located adjacent to, or in, grasslands and forests. This means naturally occurring wildfires are more likely to impact people and their properties.

As a result of this inevitable future threat, partnerships between scientists, community groups, local government, and individuals aim to find a solution to the multifaceted issue of wildfires in Boulder County and surrounding areas. Sharing resources between these groups is an essential aspect of creating an efficient wildfire mitigation plan. One example is The Watershed Center.


Protecting and restoring watersheds

“Fires don’t recognize jurisdictional boundaries and fires could go through multiple properties, towns, and municipalities, so if you have one entity that is managing their land but they’re adjacent to another entity that are not doing that or doing it differently, that’s going to affect how the fire would potentially spread and behave,” said Matt Bitters, ecologist at The Watershed Center.

The mission of The Watershed Center is “to protect and restore watersheds for people and the environment using a collaborative and science-based approach.” Established in 2005, the organization has been led by a diverse group of stakeholders, seeking science-based and people-oriented solutions.

Boulder creek in winter, Boulder Colorado

Among other things, The Watershed Center studies and shares information about response of vegetation after fires, fire mitigation, and post-fire recovery.

Every part of the organization relies on information sharing to communicate the best strategies for lowering fire risk. While not many overall practices have changed since the Marshall Fire, groups like The Watershed Center have allowed the community to divide and conquer on the specifics of what works in a variety of circumstances.

While grazing and mowing have been fire prevention practices for decades, figuring out how big of a buffer is needed where, taking wind speeds into account, and finding the balance between protecting natural spaces and stopping the fire spread.

Bitters said an all-or-nothing approach was a common sentiment directly after the Marshall Fire. “We heard a lot of concerns from residents saying ‘just mow the grasslands, get rid of the open space,’ and while that reduces fuel, it’s nuanced because the grass will grow back,” he said.

Without considering the time of year, the maintenance required, and how removing grassland impacts the natural ecosystem, a mow-it-all response is not beneficial. Weeds may replace the grass that are even less fire resistant, animal habitats may be destroyed, and the balance of the natural replenishment of land may be off-kilter. Removing vegetation can lead to other environmental troubles like erosion and soil loss.

Bitters reminded community members that “fires have been here long before any of us have been, and these ecosystems depend on fires.” Understanding how these environments functioned before people arrived is essential in proper land management.

Boulder Office of Disaster Management

The Boulder Office of Disaster Management focuses directly on communication with individual community members. They encourage folks to make a specific plan to ensure the least damage when a disaster hits.

“We’re all at the crap sandwich picnic together when one hits, and so the preparedness is kind of like the mustard, the hot sauce, whatever you want to put on it to make it a little bit better,” said Monika Weber, disaster management coordinator at the city of Boulder’s ODM.

Preparedness does not prevent a disaster from happening but rather decreases the physical and emotional damage when one occurs.

The ODM is a direct result of the Marshall Fire. Prior to the fire, a program called Better Together attempted to encourage residents to protect themselves and their community. The Marshall Fire alerted the local government to the need for more comprehensive resources for emergency preparedness.

Weber said that people’s interest in her work ebbs and flows. At times, when there has not been a disaster for a while, people get preoccupied by the other things going on in their lives. It is her job to remind people that preparedness is most important when things are calm.

The department has several trainings for community members to get information about preparedness and how to inform others about how they can do the same.

One of the most important parts of these trainings is: “Make a plan for your household,” said Weber. “And that really should encompass how you are going to communicate with one another, evacuation, knowing your routes, knowing what modes of transportation you’re going to take, and then also a grab list.”

Grab List

A grab list should encompass the important emotional items that you would like to take with you in an emergency evacuation. Creating a list with items and their locations and posting it somewhere easily accessible — like the inside of a kitchen cabinet — is important to avoid emergency panic. And, with a list, if someone else is at your home when an emergency occurs, they may be able to locate some of those important items for you.

Questions to ask to help you make a grab list:

  • What are items that you’d want to take with you in the event of an evacuation? Be sure to consider items that are important to you that may be irreplaceable.
  • What items do you need to maintain your wellbeing? Are there medications, supplies, etc. that you need to take with you?
  • What are key items that you would want to be prepared with to help you maintain your lifelines?
  • Write down your grab list including both the item and its location in your home.
  • Consider ordering items on your grab list in terms of priority. This allows you to make your list scalable, so you can grab your most important items if you have very limited time to evacuate.
  • Have every household member complete their own personal grab list of a few items.
  • Provide a trusted person with access to your home — this gives you a backup option of someone who can help gather individuals, pets, items, etc. in the event of an evacuation if you’re away.

Be prepared, sign up for alerts

While a plan is an important tool for disaster preparedness, above all, Weber recommended that people sign up for emergency alerts. This can be through BOCO Alert or ReachWell, two platforms that send messages to people’s smartphones alerting them to possible emergency situations.

The Office of Disaster Management has created many physical tools to support folks in their disaster preparedness. These documents were recently translated into Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean, and Russian — the five most common languages in the county other than English.

Other resources include a Disaster Preparedness Conversation Card. This tool was originally created to help community members with disabilities communicate during emergencies, but Weber said it is also a good tool for anyone to start a conversation with their neighbors about a disaster preparedness plan.

“The first thing on our list is: Trust your gut,” Weber said. While the office plans to host more trainings, conduct further outreach, and continue spreading preparedness tactics, she encouraged everyone to trust their instincts and do what keeps them and their community safe during an emergency.

Wildfire Partners

Knowing how to respond to an emergency is an important skill. The threat of wildfires is not going away, but Wildfire Partners, a subsect of Boulder County, is working to help residents make their homes and properties more fire-resistant.

“We’ve been around for 10 years, and most of our work was in the West because traditionally that’s where fires start,” said Stephanie Buchanan, wildfire mitigation program specialist. “We know that that’s not always the case now, but we focus on individual home assessments, and we basically show people, give them the tools for what they would need to do to make their home itself and 100 feet around their home fire safe.”

Essentially, Wildfire Partners helps folks build a metaphorical bubble around their homes so that when a fire does occur the likelihood of damage to their property is lower. They focus not on preventing wildfires but on community resilience in the face of such events.

Buchanan said that the biggest change post-Marshall Fire was the spread of resources to the eastern part of the county. People who choose to move to the mountains often know that wildfire is a possibility; it is the folks who live in town who have never had to think about it before.

Even Buchanan herself, who lives in a neighborhood in Louisville and has been a fire safety educator for 10 years, said that she did not think about protecting her own home until the Marshall Fire.

“For those communities like ours where we live so close together, mitigation has to look different,” she said. “We’re really focusing on community mitigation and education in those neighborhoods who’ve never really thought about it until the Marshall Fire.”

In these communities where homes back right up to one another, one neighbor’s mitigation efforts are nearly pointless without the collaboration of the surrounding properties. This has led Wildfire Partners to change the language and tactics they use around mitigation to meet these communities where they are. One big focus is getting people to see how they have an individual responsibility to make their community safer.

Similar to Weber’s work, a challenge is keeping people engaged when there has not been another fire close to communities in over two years. “Everybody kind of wanted to do something right after,” Buchanan said. “And now we’ve had a wet season without fires and time, and those things put together make it so that it’s not so much in the forefront.”

This new community outreach program did not begin in full force until December of 2023, so its effectiveness has yet to be evaluated.

Buchanan is hopeful about the future resources coming to mitigation efforts. “There will be more money coming to community members to do mitigation that will come in different forms,” she said. “We’re all paying into this mitigation tax that passed in November of 2022 … so as we’re all paying into it, we’re going to be pushing it back out to the community in different ways.”

Through social media and newsletters, Wildfire Partners is working to make resources easily accessible. Buchanan acknowledged that it can be a daunting task to begin making your home and community safer. She recommended approaching it one piece at a time.

“It takes time, it takes money, it takes know-how, and we have the help now for people in all those areas, but if you just start with one little thing at a time, we can all be collectively making a difference for ourselves, and our neighborhoods, and the greater community,” she said.

Community Wildfire Protection Plan

This united effort to move towards fire-safe communities is culminating, most recently, in an updated Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The plan currently in place in Boulder County was completed in 2011 with far different environmental circumstances and a different population.

The county has stated that the plan “identifies and prioritizes measures to protect life, property, and critical infrastructure in the wildland-urban interface during a wildfire event.” All of Colorado’s CWPPs must meet the Colorado State Forest Service’s minimum standards.

A CWPP is not legislation. It is not a legally binding document. Rather, it is a way for the community to get on the same page in order to effectively prevent future wildfire damage.

One important aspect of this is gathering community feedback. This is done through public open houses hosted by the county, where residents can gather information and address their concerns. If folks are unable to attend these events, they may fill out a survey to have their voices heard.

The final community open house is being hosted on Saturday, April 20 at LeftHand Fire, with the hopes of a finalized, updated Community Wildfire Protection Plan completed by June.

As of March 25th, 2024, a draft of the CWPP is available on the city of Boulder website, alongside a forum for public comment, which was open until April 8th, 2024. These steps to share information and gain feedback are essential to creating a more fire-resistant community. Government officials, local experts, and informed community members seem to agree: The time to act is when things are relatively stable. The time to prepare is before you need the resources, and the time to be informed is now.


Katie Mackinnon
Katie MacKinnon is a writer striving to build connection through storytelling. She specializes in environmental reporting, always looking to find the human angle and the untold story. She has a passion for local food systems, sustainable agriculture, and environmental justice. When not writing, she can be found reading, sewing, or spending time in the outdoors.

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