On the morning of December 30, 2021 the Marshal Fire ignited south of Boulder, Colorado. Pushed by winds gusting well over 40 mph, hurricane strength in some areas, it burned through subdivisions destroying 1,056 structures. By late the next day the winds had decreased and it was snowing on the 6,080-acre blaze.
At the request of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control a Facilitated Learning Analysis has been completed. The very lengthy and detailed document is in the Storymap format, which in this case includes many illustrations, photos, and maps.
Topics covered are weather, fuels, fire behavior, communication, ordering, evacuations, utilities, animal rescue, and hospital evacuation. It contains a wealth of information that could aid communities planning to prevent similar damage from inevitable wildfires, and manage them after they start.
When you have been impacted by a disaster of any kind you are frightened, scared, often very angry and the last thing you need is to fill out forms and answer numerous questions from strangers clamoring to HELP you. So why is it that the majority of our disaster assistance and recovery programs at all levels fail to understand that emotional issues can seldom be resolved by analytical processes?
At a hazards mitigation conference I once attended, one subject kept coming up (albeit often in side conversations): how can we do better with natural hazards preparedness and mitigation? At all levels of government and private industry, the fact that billions of dollars are being spent annually often with very little result is becoming a major concern. That the largest risk companies now estimate that the cost of hazards damage is starting to become incalculable is scaring even the wealthiest countries. The big elephant in the room was the fundamental question of whether it is even possible to understand a subject with massive emotional dynamics through analytical means.
Should this be approached in a very different way? Any victim of a disaster in which their world has imploded in 5 minutes is naturally frightened, upset, and scared. To introduce a program of any kind, no matter how well-intentioned, that does not explicitly recognize this adds additional trauma, leading to complex issues lasting for years.
Two of the presenters at the conference made a huge impact: elders from the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana; and Sallie Clark, a Commissioner for El Paso County, Colorado. Their messages were different, but interconnected. In sum, they both stressed the importance of knowing your community and reacting in both a human and efficient systems way, or as Sallie stated so eloquently “Yes, indeed we need to be efficient in our response to a disaster — but let’s not forget that sometimes they just need a hug.”
The Chitimacha (Sitimaxa, “people of the many waters”) are famous because when the FEMA team got to their reservation three weeks after hurricane Katrina, they had already taken care of most of the damage. Communication in the tribe took place mostly by word of mouth, with CB radio assistance. Within 24 hours after the storm had passed, all 1,100 members of the tribe had been contacted by a tribal council team and all needs, both physical and emotional, were being attended to. Rebuilding had started, and in many cases was complete. A major focus of the tribal council was on emotional support, and this ran consistently throughout everything they were doing.
Sallie was doing something similar after the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire devastated her Colorado Springs community. That wildfire was one of the most destructive in Colorado history. It took two lives, destroyed 347 homes, forced tens of thousands to evacuate, and insurance claims topped $450M. Sallie’s response: identify everyone impacted, ensure they have a case officer attending their needs both physical and emotional, and simply make sure they have a shoulder to cry on. She personally drove to evacuation shelters and made sure this was being done and gave anyone a hug who needed it. A truly shining example of “WE CARE!”
A television station in Denver, 9News, has found that in the general area where investigators are narrowing down the origin and cause of the Marshall Fire northwest of Denver an underground coal seam has been burning since the 1870s.
In December, 2005 after a portion of the burning seam emerged on the surface and started a vegetation fire the Office of Surface Mining advised the City of Boulder, which owns the land, “It would be prudent for the City of Boulder to remove any vegetation from surface cracks, as well as begin a long term maintenance and monitoring program for the area.” In 2005 the spread of the fire was stopped quickly.
The City hauled in 275 tons of gravel with the intention of least insulating the fire from the surface. But these underground fires have a habit of creeping their way back up and too often ignite fires. They are next to impossible to extinguish.
9News reported that the M. P. Fox mine in the area operated from 1884 until 1936.
Pushed by winds gusting at 60 to 100 mph, the Marshall Fire spread rapidly as it destroyed more than 1,000 homes. Most were in the city of Louisville and the town of Superior.
The 9News video below has more details.
On a different topic, but related to the Marshall Fire, we learn in the next video that 17 of the houses that were in the burned area but survived have been sold.
The rapidly spreading blaze destroyed more than 1,000 homes northwest of Denver December 30
Investigators are looking at an old coal mine as the possible cause of the Marshall Fire northwest of Denver, Colorado. Decades ago miners were extracting coal from an area near the location where the Marshall Fire started December 30, 2021. The remaining coal has been burning for years even though dozens of tons of fill were hauled in with the intention of stopping the burning, or at least insulating the fire from the surface. But these underground fires have a habit of creeping their way back to the surface and too often ignite a vegetation fire.
The old mine near the intersection of Highway 93 and Marshall Drive near the town of Marshall is one of 38 active underground coal fires in Colorado. In 2002 a burning underground coal seam ignited vegetation near Glenwood Springs, Colorado which burned 29 homes and more than 12,000 acres.
Wildfire Today had an article in 2008 about an 8-year-old boy who suffered burns on his foot when he walked into an area of Golden Hills park in Colorado Springs, Colorado that was covered in coal dust. Left over from coal mining operations about 80 years earlier, the dust was on fire, smoldering, and it melted the boy’s plastic shoe and gave him second degree burns. If the boy had not “discovered” the fire, it would have spread into nearby vegetation. The cause of the fire was unknown.
Pushed by winds gusting at 60 to 100 mph, the Marshall Fire spread rapidly last month as it destroyed more than 1,000 homes. Most were in the city of Louisville and the town of Superior.
It burned over 6,000 acres and nearly 1,100 homes northwest of Denver, December 30, 2021
The Denver office of the National Weather Service has released an analysis of the weather that created the conditions on December 30, 2021 that allowed the Marshall Fire southeast of Boulder, Colorado to be turned into a blast furnace that within a few hours ran five miles to the east burning 6,000 acres and destroying nearly 1,100 homes with a total value of more than $500 million.
The NWS described the winds the day of the fire:
High winds developed in the mid morning hours on Thursday, December 30th, 2021, the result of a mountain wave that developed as very strong westerly winds raced over the Front Range Mountains and Foothills and crashed down onto the plains. The mountain wave remained nearly unchanged through the rest of the day, resulting in very persistent and extremely high winds. Mountain waves are usually focused very close to the base of the foothills and adjacent plains. On this day, sustained winds of 50 to 60 mph with gusts of 80 to 100 mph were felt along Highway 93 and points east to around Superior and at times, Louisville.
On the map below, the final fire perimeter is outlined by light purple (upper center of the plot images), while the city of Boulder is located in the northwest corner. The black numbers are temperature (F), red numbers are wind gusts, and the wind barbs point to the direction the wind was from.
The surface plot for 12 PM MST above shows some of the strongest winds from this wind event. A peak gust of 115 mph was reported at the base of the foothills, just east of the intersection of Highway 93 and Highway 72. Note the 85 mph gust in south Boulder, and a 100 mph gust along Highway 93 (very bottom of the image below) at about noon.
After a very wet first half of the year that resulted in a lush, tall crop of grass, the six months leading up to the fire in late December were the driest in recorded history, by far. Drought affects moisture in the vegetation — the fuel moisture. The lower is it, the more easily and more intensely it burns in a wildfire. There were many areas in the fire with light vegetation, such as grass, that in December after it has cured would be more affected by recent rain (or the lack thereof) and relative humidity than long term drought. The relative humidity was in the mid-20s that day. But the National Weather Service said larger fuels such as shrubs and trees were plentiful in and around the affected subdivisions. Those fuels would be heavily affected by the historic drought and would have low fuel moistures in the live and dead vegetation.
Drought can also affect the home ignition zone. If gutters on homes are not kept clean of leaves, they can be ignited during an ember shower even if the fire is thousands of feet away. If the gutters have leaves during normal weather, especially in December near Boulder, they could also have water that is trapped by the leaves keeping them wet for weeks or months. But with historic drought, it is possible the water evaporated, making them susceptible for ignition by embers. A fire in a gutter can spread to the structure.
The lawns that in late December would often be covered by snow, were most likely brown and dry, making it possible for an ember to ignite the grass which could spread to homes. Mulch, such as bark or wood chips placed around ornamental plants and near structures would also be much drier than normal, making that fuel available. And remember, the winds were 50 to 60 mph with gusts of 80 to 100 mph.
As structures burned, millions of additional burning embers were lofted into the air with many of them igniting susceptible fuels out in front of the main fire. A burning home that in many cases was only 15 to 20 feet away from other houses could easily ignite through convective or radiant heat the neighboring residence.
Estimated value of those Boulder County, Colorado homes is $513 million
An interagency damage assessment of the Marshall Fire southeast of Boulder, Colorado updated Jan. 6 has found 1,084 destroyed residences and 149 that were damaged. The total countywide estimated value of residential damage is $513,212,589. The updated numbers for commercial structures are 7 destroyed and 30 damaged. The total value of commercial damage is still being calculated. The commercial structures included a shopping center and the Element Hotel.
City of Louisville: 550 destroyed, 43 damaged; actual value of residential damage is approximately $229,199,184
Town of Superior: 378 destroyed, 58 damaged; actual value of residential damage is approximately $152,757,462
Unincorporated Boulder County: 156 destroyed, 48 damaged; actual value of residential damage is approximately $131,255,944