The Marshall Fire is seen burning near a subdivsion in Louisville on Dec. 30. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

On Dec. 30 last year, a landscape devoid of moisture collaborated with furious winds to produce the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. For those who lost their homes in the fire — or are kept from returning home by smoke damage — the past year has been one of grief at loss and battles with insurers. But for those who responded to the fire, the anniversary marks a year of change in how fire is thought about and responded to.

Because of the fire, the City of Boulder released a new alert system called Zonehaven to expedite evacuations. It also put together an interdepartmental wildfire team to bring cohesion throughout the city, and changed the way the fire department responds on high-risk days to add more vigor to initial firefighting attacks.

At the county level, the biggest change is funding. This past November, voters recognized Boulder’s fire danger and opted to put more money towards mitigating it through two new sales taxes.

“For the 1A and 1B taxes to pass, that was a game changer,” said Seth McKinney, fire management officer for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. 

The Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) for the Marshall Fire — a state government report comprised of stories, analysis and commentary to “help other communities be prepared for these increasingly frequent events” — says “the current levels of investments” for mitigation and adaptation on the Front Range “will not yield better outcomes at the rate necessary.” Even with the additional taxes, current funding is unlikely to suffice for all that’s needed in our new, fire-imbued normal. 

Still, the $22 million provided collectively by the 1A and 1B county ballot measures will support needed fire mitigation efforts. 1A specifically will aid the expansion of the Wildfire Partners program into eastern Boulder County. A program that helps homeowners recognize fire risk on their properties, the tax will allow Wildfire Partners to grow their staff, increasing the number of fire mitigation specialists who can help residents make good landscaping choices — like establishing non-combustible zones, limbing trees, and avoiding wooden fences.

Wooden fences ignite subdivisions

In the FLA report, wooden fences are listed as “not the main culprit” but certainly a significant aggravator of the Marshall Fire. In subdivisions where perimeter wooden fences abutted open space fuels, a large majority of houses were lost, the authors wrote. Yet in areas where manicured lawns acted as a buffer between wildland fuels and fences, many houses were saved. This is probably because as the fire burned across grassland, it would either sputter against lawns or lick wooden posts — dried the same as vegetation — and set the fences aflame. 

“Wooden fences are essentially vertical fuels in the 100- and 1000-hour time lag size categories,” the report said, “meaning they ignite less readily than 1-hour fuels such as grasses, but once ignited will burn more intensely and for a longer duration.” 

The wind then tossed larger and longer-burning embers from those fences into the adjoining subdivisions — onto waiting roofs, decks and vegetation. 

With the expansion of Wildfire Partners, these landscaping missteps can hopefully be avoided, making neighborhoods more resilient against future fires. (In California, wooden fences within 5 feet of a structure will soon be banned under new regulations governing “Zone 0,” the area closest to homes.)

The new sales taxes will also enable communication improvements so the county can get firefighters and their equipment to wildfires more efficiently, and then better coordinate once there. It’s something McKinney said the county has been tackling over the past year. Though communication isn’t the new, sexy building or fire engine people can point to as a change, it is, McKinney said, the “nuts and bolts” of response. The tax will also provide some much-needed funding for mountain fire districts in the unincorporated western part of the county.

Just as the new climate tax will allow greater capacity for prescribed burns on the city’s open space lands, the new countywide taxes will allow for increased burning in places that have been historically overlooked, like irrigation ditches throughout the county. As is the case with Wildfire Partners, McKinney is hoping to add more wildland positions to the Sheriff’s Office so there are more people to implement these efforts.

The new county taxes will enable more fire mitigation projects, like forest thinning. Credit: Tim Drugan

Getting all city departments ‘on the same page’

On the city level, collaboration has been the theme of this past year. Brian Oliver, Boulder Fire-Rescue’s Wildland Division Chief, said the city formed an interdepartmental wildfire team to ensure all departments are “looking at wildfire from a city lens.” 

“How are we going to address this as the City of Boulder?” Oliver said. “[Wildfire] isn’t a problem we can solve, but it’s one we can prepare for.”

Historically, the city operated in silos, with different departments operating towards different goals. Open Space and Mountain Parks, for instance, might be clearing junipers from their lands due to the trees’ high volatility in fires. At the same time, Parks and Recreation might be aiding junipers on their parcels because they wanted canopy cover the trees provided. 

“We were sending conflicting messages as a city,” Oliver said. “So we’re now trying to get everyone on the same page.”

Another benefit of the wildfire team is helping departments who “never really looked at things through a wildfire lens” do just that. Consider Boulder’s Utilities Department. Much of the city’s source water and water infrastructure is located at higher elevations in lodgepole pine forests. Unlike ponderosa pine ecosystems that are adapted to burn frequently at low intensities, lodgepole pine forests typically torch every couple hundred years in monstrous, stand-replacing fires — where all the trees burn and die.

Oliver said those working for Boulder’s utilities are now considering how they would respond to maintain the city’s source water infrastructure should the city’s watershed carbonize.

“It’s full, citywide problem scoping,” Oliver said.

Another Marshall Fire-induced change in the city is dispatch protocols. On days when fire risk is high, there are now twice as many firefighters ready to respond to calls. The hope is if a fire starts, more engines available and more people operating those engines means a better chance of stopping flames before they become unstoppable. “When conditions are [high risk], our best tool is rapid and aggressive initial attack,” Oliver said.

In line with McKinney’s efforts of improving internal communications on the county scale, the City of Boulder released Zonehaven to address external communications. Previously covered in a BRL story on how to get off Twitter, Zonehaven is a way for Boulder residents to follow evacuation orders in real-time and get additional resources during an emergency.

Alerts will still be sent out through Everbridge and Wireless Alert Systems, but those alerts will direct residents to Zonehaven where “they can get real-time information of, ‘oh, that’s my neighborhood, it’s getting evacuated for this reason, and I need to go to this shelter.’”

Oliver said Zonehaven also serves to lessen the phone calls the fire department fields “over and over and over again” of people asking when they can go home after an evacuation. “We can now say, ‘watch the website. When [your zone] turns green, you’re good to go home.’”

More change, quickly

At the end of the Fuels and Fire Behavior section of the Marshall Fire FLA report, the authors wonder “if a tipping point exists that will spur large-scale collective action to address the well-documented and severe risks to the lives and livelihood of Coloradans.

“If the Marshall Fire is not that tipping point,” it continues, “[such a tipping point] may not exist.”

Tim Drugan

Tim Drugan covers wildfires, water and other climate change-related issues for Boulder Reporting Lab with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism.

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