My wife Brandi and I were walking back to our rental home in the Devil’s Thumb neighborhood on Saturday afternoon when we saw the first curls of smoke from the NCAR Fire. We had gone to the Table Mesa Shopping Center earlier that morning to get groceries and grab brunch at Southern Sun, where we scored a spot on the patio with a perfect view of Bear Mountain — its frosted peak gleaming in the sunlight of an unseasonably warm day.

After stopping at Sweet Cow for a couple cones and trekking back toward our house, nervous looks from rubbernecking neighbors began to suggest the distant plume we’d begun to notice might be worth worrying about.

“I’m going to feel so stupid eating this ice cream cone if we get up here and our house is on fire,” Brandi said.

As you know by now, Devil’s Thumb was spared, along with other South Boulder neighborhoods in danger of being engulfed by the inferno. But the irony my wife described has been on my mind ever since. Life here in our little Front Range hamlet is often blissful — until it isn’t. Saturday was yet another sobering reminder of how quickly things can turn.

As Brandi and I later fled east in our Subaru with two cats and a packed suitcase, reporter John Herrick was heading into the evacuation area. He spoke to those who stayed behind, while I listened to the stories of my fellow evacuees at the East Boulder Community Center. We brought our dispatches together for today’s top story, featuring voices of community members as they adjust to life in a fire-prone area amid intensifying climate change.

“It’s in our backyard,” displaced resident Lynn LiCalsi said of climate change as we watched the fire burn together from the overnight shelter. “We should all wake up.”

– Jezy, managing editor

Kathleen MacDonald sits in the back of her Subaru station wagon beside stacks of photo albums and a handful of letter openers in preparation to evacuate her home due to the NCAR fire on March 26, 2022. Credit: John Herrick

Quickly

🔥 Latest on the NCAR Fire: All evacuations have been lifted, per Boulder OEM. The fire is 35% contained, as of a 4 p.m. update yesterday. The fire footprint is roughly 189 acres, unchanged since Sunday morning. There are still zero reports of injuries, structure damage or missing people. Authorities say flames were within a thousand yards of homes on the western edge of Boulder.

🌤 More heat, more fire danger: Elevated fire danger continues today with an expected near-record high of 76 expected amid dry conditions. Cooler temps and possible rain returns to the forecast for Tuesday.

🐾 Pet pickup and resources: The Humane Society of Boulder Valley opens at 8 a.m. this morning for residents to reclaim evacuated companion animals. They’re also offering free pet food and supplies to anyone in need. Large animals can be picked up from the Boulder County Fairgrounds 24 hours a day.

🥾 Trail updates: Trails in the fire area remain closed (obviously) but several trails to the north of Skunk Canyon are now reopened to the public. The city is will continue assessing damage to trails and open space over the coming days. Stay up to date on closures here.

📈 Covid rates up. The seven-day moving average of new cases in Boulder County (the metric used to smooth out daily reporting irregularities) is 88, up 93% compared to a week ago. The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment said the Omicron subvariant BA.2 has been found in about 7 percent of test samples — but that data lags by at least two weeks. (About 35% of U.S. cases are now caused by the subvariant, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though their data lags, too.)

🧯 Prescribed burns in open space: The City of Boulder announced its list of nine agricultural-related prescribed burn areas in 2022. Read the full list here.

🏠 Permanently affordable. It’s hard to find anyone with a neutral reaction to the housing market in Boulder, where the median price of a new home is up nearly 30% over last year and the for-sale inventory is low. Want to share your thoughts and suggestions? The city’s Homeownership Team is collecting feedback about its Permanently Affordable Homes program and how to improve it.

🙌 Donations wanted: Sister Carmen Community Center, the East Boulder County aid organization, announced it is no longer limiting the amount of donations per donor, after previously being overwhelmed with donations post-Marshall Fire. “So please stop by with as many of your gently used items as you’d like,” the nonprofit wrote on Facebook. Drop off is every day from 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. at 701 Baseline Rd. in Lafayette.

Top Stories

‘365 fire days a year’: NCAR wildfire is another wake-up call for weary Boulder residents adjusting to life in the new normal

The South Boulder wildfire that erupted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) amid near-record temperatures on Saturday, March 26, was another wake-up call for Boulder County residents about the dangers of living in a place prone to wildfires as climate change intensifies.

The flames burned about 189 acres of city-owned open space in and around NCAR’s popular hiking trails, and less than a half-mile from the Devil’s Thumb neighborhood. During the peak of the fire, authorities ordered the evacuation of an area that included 19,000 people. A mix of fire-mitigation work, weather and sheer luck of the winds spared the city and county. 

About 200 firefighters helped prevent the blaze from spreading further and faster. No structure damages or injuries were reported. Years of forest thinning by saw crews with the city’s Open Space and Mountain Parks department helped cool the blaze. Typical northerly winds kept the flames away from nearby homes, and allowed the state to send in aircrafts to drop flame retardant on and around the fire. 

The blaze started around 2 p.m. Saturday in Bear Canyon, a corridor for Xcel Energy’s power lines running to residents’ homes in the foothills. 

By late Sunday afternoon, the fire was 35% contained, officials said, and mostly under control. All evacuation orders were lifted. The cause is under investigation. 

Mike Smith, of the Boulder Incident Management Team, said the city was in a good position. 

“We continue to get a lot of good work done. This morning, the weather was a little bit cooler. The wind was a little bit calmer,” Smith said during a news conference Sunday afternoon. 

The grassfire could have been more destructive under different conditions. Just three months earlier, the Marshall Fire, fueled by 100 mile-per-hour downslope winds, torched more than a thousand homes in nearby Louisville and Superior. The Dec. 30 disaster is the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history. 

Boulder may have lucked out this time. But the close call portends a fire season that never really lets up, with yearslong drought and other climate change-fueled impacts baked in — even during a winter that saw above-average snowfall across the Front Range, with snow still covering much of the Boulder skyline. 

“We’re nervous about the season coming up. When you look at the long-term forecasts for the upcoming season, I think this is just a sign of the way things are gonna go,” Smith said. “We only have 365 fire days a year.”

With another risky wildfire season ahead, here are 6 terms to understand — from ‘red flag warning’ to ‘100% containment’

The NCAR wildfire was a sharp reminder to be prepared for what forecasters warn is likely to be a risky spring for wildfires.

Here are six terms you’ll often hear when people talk about wildfires that are useful to understand, both for preparing for fire season and gauging the risk when fires start.

Here’s what we know (and don’t) about the Kalmia Avenue apartment fire

Josh Shepperd woke to a pounding on the door and the smell of smoke around 5 a.m. on the morning of March 25. The building across from his at the Magwood Apartments on the 2800 block of Kalmia Avenue was engulfed in flames. 

“Fire was shooting out of the roof of the building, which was only 15 feet across from us,” he said. “So it was very, very close to our apartment.” 

Shepperd’s home was spared, but 24 households were displaced by the early-morning blaze that damaged two of the complex’s nine residential buildings.

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BRL Picks

🧊 Cool down. Coal Creek Meals on Wheels needs coolers to help keep their clients’ meals fresh for home delivery. Got one you can donate? They’ll take styrofoam, hard-shell and other varieties. Drop off your donations at 455 N. Burlington Ave. in Lafayette.

🚲 Two wheels, big screen. Join Community Cycles for its first in-person fundraising event of the year during its Bicycle Film Festival on Friday, April 22. Featuring an all-new selection of short films from around the world, the diverse program includes narrative films and documentaries by award-winning filmmakers and emerging directors alike. Tickets here.

🎭 ‘All the world’s a stage.’ The Colorado Shakespeare Festival 2022 summer lineup features the Bard’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Coriolanus, along with two non-Shakespeare works: Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. Tickets are going fast. Get them here.

📚 Women to the front. Need some media recommendations for celebrating Women’s History Month? UC Boulder Libraries has got you covered with picks from libraries staff and other members of the campus community — from memoirs to podcasts, and points in between

COVID Updates: March 28, 2022

  • 88 daily new cases (7-day avg.) 🔺Up 93% over preceding 7-day avg.
  • 0 patients hospitalized with Covid (7-day avg.) Down from avg. of 40 since July 2020.
  • 58% percent of ICU is occupied. Down from avg. of 71% since July 2020.
  • Second boosters. The Food and Drug Administration could soon authorize a second booster of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines to those 50 and up, according to news reports.

What We’re Reading

📖 $14 million to BLM Protesters. “A jury has ordered the city of Denver to pay 12 protesters $14 million in damages over the Denver Police Department’s response to rallies following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.” [Denverite]

📖 EPA objects to approval of Suncor permit. “The EPA notified Colorado health department officials Friday that it will formally object to parts of the Suncor Refinery’s operating permit renewal because the state may have improperly exempted three flaring systems at the plant.” [Colorado Sun]

📖 Universal preschool bill passes Colorado House. “Democrats’ plan to implement universal preschool — a key campaign promise of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis — passed a major test Friday, securing approval from the Colorado House of Representatives.” The bill seeks to create a no-cost preschool program by Fall 2023. [Colorado Newsline

ICYMI from BRL

❤️‍🩹 ‘How can you deal with those hard feelings?’: Youth-led day of healing helps Boulder residents work through big emotions after a tragic year. Local teens present an interactive program of art-making and community-building designed to help process grief after the King Soopers shooting, Marshall Fire and ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

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Jezy J. Gray

I’m the managing editor of the Boulder Reporting Lab. In addition to years of writing on the culture, politics and history of my home state of Oklahoma, I was the final editor-in-chief of the Tulsa Voice, a local bi-weekly newspaper where I led a small but mighty team of journalists to regional and national honors in feature writing, diversity reporting, LGBTQ+ coverage and more. I look forward to listening to and learning from the Boulder community as we work together on telling the stories that matter here.