Damage from the Marshall Fire in Boulder County on Dec. 30. Credit: Anthony Albidrez.

There are still plenty of uncertainties in the wake of the Marshall Fire, but one lesson seems to be clear: The wildland-urban interface, where human development meets the wilderness, is expanding. 

That was the consensus among experts during Wednesday’s installment of the  virtual conversation series called Forest, Fires and People, who agreed on the threat of this expansion as potential fuel for future wildfires. The panelists differed, however, in their advice on what to do in response.

The online event, co-hosted by the Institute for Science and Policy at the Denver Museum of Natural History and the Center for Collaborative Conservation with funding from the Gates Family Foundation, was the final conversation in the series designed to foster “wide-ranging conversations from around the region around the decisions, impacts, and stewardship principles that guide our collective approach to forest management and fire.” 

Last night’s installment began with host Kristan Uhlenbrock asking Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones about his personal experience with the Marshall Fire. Jones said he had previously thought his career in wildfire management had nothing to do with his everyday life in Boulder County.

“I was dead wrong,” he said. “I never thought this could happen to us.” 

He described the frantic details of evacuating his home in Louisville on Dec. 30 and anxiously awaiting updates on whether it survived the fire. The next day he got the good news that his house was still standing. “We were darn lucky. But then it set in: How many people weren’t so lucky?”

In the absence of a robust safety net for fire victims, many of whom are underinsured, Jones pointed to philanthropy as the most immediate way to help fire victims. He urged the audience to support the Boulder County Community Foundation, saying the $30 million raised so far for its Wildfire Fund “is not nearly enough” to rebuild. 

‘The road to recovery will be a long one.

With the human toll of the Marshall Fire front and center, the conversation moved toward resilience and prevention. Following Jones were panelists Jennifer Balch, director of the Earth Lab and environmental studies professor at CU Boulder, and Jim Webster, the program coordinator for Boulder County’s Wildlife Partners mitigation initiative.

Professor Balch cautioned that “the road to recovery” after the Marshall Fire “will be a long one.” 

Balch attributes the severity of the Marshall Fire to a very wet spring in 2021 that helped grow vegetative fuels, followed by the hottest June-to-December temperatures on record. She said she knew how bad the fire was once she saw the dark color of the smoke, indicating that large, human-made structures were burning.

Another reason that the Marshall Fire was so destructive, Balch added, is the amount of human development in areas susceptible to fires. “What turned this into a disaster is that we have been building many homes literally in the line of fire for decades across the Front Range,” she said.

Webster also talked at length about the expansion of the wildland-urban interface, which is the buffer between human development and undeveloped land that contains vegetation that could be fuel for wildfires. More people living in the interface means more people at risk of having their residence in a wildfire’s path. Balch also pointed out that the overwhelming majority of wildfires are started by people. A more populated interface coupled with a warming climate will lead to more events like the Marshall Fire.

Webster explained that Colorado law requires every county at risk of wildfires in the state to develop a Wildfire Protection Plan that defines the parameters of the interface and decides where to direct prevention and mitigation resources.

Boulder’s Wildfire Protection Plan was adopted in 2011. So far, he said, Wildfire Partners’ outreach has mostly focused on the foothills and nearby forested areas, which are considered to be at the highest risk for fire by the Colorado State Forest Service. After the Marshall Fire burned through grassland and suburban development, assessing risk is more complicated.

Webster’s advice for wildfire resilience focused on individuals, urging residents to “harden” their homes to make them more fire-resistant. He called upon local governments in Boulder County to provide homeowners with financial and technical assistance in upgrading their residences. 

Professor Balch, on the other hand, spoke about the need to also focus on community resilience rather than just on individual houses. She said communities also need to develop plans and programs for socially vulnerable people who live in wildfire risk zones. 

Balch also advocated prescribed burns to reduce the amount of built-up fuel periodically.  Balch said the smoke might bother some residents, but at this point, fire around Boulder is inevitable. “It’s a matter of when, not if,” she said. “Colorado is a flammable place.”