Equilibrium & Sustainability

Boulder County picks up pieces after unprecedented wind and firestorm

AP-Jack Dempsey

BOULDER, Colo. — Residents of Boulder County are scrambling to recover from the wreckage of an unprecedented suburban firestorm that burned down about 1,000 homes and required thousands of residents to flee the area this weekend.

At least 991 structures were destroyed by the Marshall Fire, which began on Thursday amid wind gusts of up to 100 mph, while an additional 127 incurred damage, a preliminary report from the Boulder County Sheriff said on Saturday.

One of three missing individuals was found on Sunday, while authorities were still searching for the two others and investigating the precise cause of the fire, according to local media reports. 

“It’s been a devastating few days here for everyone in Boulder County, and certainly for our state, as we grapple with an unprecedented situation and the most destructive fire in our state’s history,” Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), whose home district includes Boulder County, told The Hill.

President Biden approved a Colorado disaster declaration on Saturday, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in Boulder County.

The city of Louisville — about 10 miles east of Boulder — incurred the most destruction, with 553 structures ruined. Meanwhile, 332 structures crumbled in the town of Superior — about 8 miles southeast of Boulder — and 106 were destroyed in unincorporated Boulder County, the sheriff reported.

The fire had reached 6,219 acres and 74 percent of the perimeter had been contained by late Sunday night, according to the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. While the Office began allowing residents to reenter certain areas of Superior on Sunday night, Louisville’s evacuation status remained in place.

“Our focus has been on doing everything we can to help residents, to help our neighbors, who are struggling during a very difficult time,” Neguse said.

His office is working with local government officials to ensure residents have the resources they need, including the replacement of IDs and documents required to obtain state and federal aid, according to the congressman.

“We worked very hard, late last week, right after the fires began, to coordinate with the governor as he made his request to the Biden administration for the major disaster declaration,” Neguse said. “We were grateful that the administration authorized that declaration and did it so swiftly, which is rare.”

The Biden administration’s declaration makes federal funding available to individuals through grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, through a designated Disaster Assistance site operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to the White House.

Together with Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Neguse said he pressed for that individual assistance to be included, enabling residents to apply online for assistance. His office has aggregated all pertinent information on his congressional website.

Federal funding is available not only to individuals, but also to state and eligible local governments, and to certain nonprofit organizations and statewide hazard mitigation measures on a cost-sharing basis, the White House said.

While federal assistance will be helpful to many Boulder County residents, Roberto Camacho Barranco and Vanezza Villegas Arreola said they won’t be able to take advantage of the temporary housing grants, even though they lost the home they purchased just one week ago. 

The couple and their six-year-old son, Matías, moved from Mexico to Superior just last year for Camacho Barranco’s engineering job. But despite having started the green card application process, they are on an H-1B specialty occupation visa — meaning they do not qualify for assistance through FEMA.

“We can do nothing about it, to expedite it, because it’s been waiting for more than six months now,” Camacho Barranco told The Hill, while driving home to Boulder County, after a trip away for the holidays. “You have to be a qualified alien, and that essentially means that either you or your son has to be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.”

The couple and their son moved to an apartment in the area in June 2020 and began renting their house in Superior in February. They recently decided to buy that house from their landlord and closed on it last week, Camacho Barranco said. Because they were not home during the firestorm, they only know their house didn’t make it — and are grateful that they had insurance.

Camacho Barranco and his family are now looking for a long-term rental during the rebuilding process, possibly returning to the same apartment complex where they first lived with their son.

“He turns seven on Thursday, so it’s a bittersweet celebration,” Camacho Barranco added. “We have been getting a lot of support from the whole community.”

Even longtime members of that wider Boulder County community — including the district’s congressman — are reeling from the devastation that unfolded over the past several days.

“Last year we had the largest wildfire [and] the second largest wildfire both happen in our district simultaneously,” said Neguse, referring to the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires of summer 2020.

Prior to this weekend, the state’s 20 largest wildfires in history had all occurred in the past 20 years, while four of the top five largest occurred in the past three years, according to Colorado’s Wildfire Information Center.

“What made this fire so different, and so uniquely disruptive, is that it raged through suburban neighborhoods,” Neguse said. “While they are arguably within the WUI — the wildland urban interface — they’re a healthy distance from mountains and from national forest land.”

Although winds are known to be strong in this region of Colorado, gusts surpassed 100 mph on Thursday, according to the National Weather Service, which also emphasized “the recent record dryness.”  

“Those who have lived in Colorado for as long as I have know just how uncommon it was that we had no moisture literally in November in December, and the conditions were set for something, tragically, to happen,” Neguse said.

The Denver region experienced its record driest July-December by over an inch, after precipitation “flat-lined” in June, according to the National Weather Service.

“We had a very dry, crispy Front Range coming into the end of December,” Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, told The Hill.

“The fact that I’m talking about a winter wildfire, which should be an oxymoron, to me is a signal that part of what we’re dealing with here is climate change,” she continued.

While Balch characterized climate change as “a very important part of the puzzle,” she stressed that it’s not the only piece — and that she thinks of climate change as “setting the stage.” Superior, an old mining town, grew from 300 homes in the 1990s to some 13,000 homes today, she explained.

“It’s actually a combination of things that come together to create a wildfire disaster,” Balch said, noting that warm temperatures, fuel and a spark are needed to start a fire. “And if you throw wind in the mix, then you get a disaster, if homes are in the way.”

Because there is no natural lightning source this time of year, Balch said she suspects that the spark either stemmed from an infrastructural failure or a human-caused source.

As Coloradans begin to rebuild their many hundreds of lost homes, she stressed the importance of doing so with more fire-resilient and -resistant materials and with a stronger wildfire messaging campaign.

“We’re Colorado strong,” Balch said. “But we need to build back smarter.”

For his part, Neguse looked to the disaster as a cautionary tale for other areas of the U.S., warning that Boulder County is not the only region prone to suburban wildfire destruction.

“I hope that other communities are paying attention,” he said. “This could happen in any suburban community in the country, given the right sort of — given the particular circumstance.” 

Tags Boulder Climate change Colorado colorado wildfire Federal Emergency Management Agency Joe Biden Joe Neguse John Hickenlooper Michael Bennet wildfires
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