Fire chiefs and experts hold summit on fire forecasting

Fire chiefs from Boulder, Louisville and other affected areas met with officials May 4 for a National Weather Service Fire Forecasting discussion.

U.S. Representatives Ed Perlmutter (CO-07), Joe Neguse (CO-02), representatives from the National Weather Service, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and members of the House Science Committee were part of the discussion.

On Dec. 30, 2021, the Marshall fire started just before 10:30 a.m. as a grass fire in Boulder County. In the following 24 hours, it became the most destructive fire in the state’s history, in terms of structures lost. Damages from the fire are estimated to exceed half a billion dollars. An exact cause of the fire has so far not been determined. 

‘Everyone’s learned from this’

Louisville Fire Chief John Willson said he had a couple of meetings and was out and about that morning. He noticed it was windy, and knew there was a grass fire around eight miles away, but figured U.S. 36 would  provide protection — and it was in grass after all — tall grass of course, dry grass, yes — but just grass. 

It had been the wrong way to think about it, he said. 

“It turned very quickly. It hit Superior around 12:30. It hit Louisville around 12:45. I think the resources were thin. I think the predictions were good — it’s just that we didn’t get them — I didn’t get them in time,” he said.

It was just one of the things that made it difficult for incident commanders and firefighters on the ground to even try to fight such a fire. But the way things unfolded, it might not have made much of a difference because it all happened so fast.

“In a normal structure fire we have 20 firefighters that are attacking this fire. That day, I had 500 homes on fire. I don’t have enough firefighters in the Denver Metro Area to try to protect — or to try to stop this,” Willson said. 

So, it was the wind finally dying down around 6:30 or 7 p.m. that allowed his firefighters to really attack the blaze.

Willson said he’d never dreamt of high winds blowing up to 70 miles per hour (with gusts, of up to 100 mph) for eight straight hours engulfing tall, dry grass in any training exercise.  And that in his decades fighting fires he’d never experienced a situation like Dec. 30, 2021. 

Everyone from scientists, to firefighters and the general public learned from the experience, he said. 

“I think we’re all learning and we’re lucky that only two people perished that day,” Willson said.

Perlmutter stressed the need to deal with climate change in addressing the threat of wildfires in the west.

“This roundtable is part of an ongoing conversation our state and country has to have about our changing climate and what it means for how we build our homes, our communities and the steps we need to take today to prevent catastrophic loss of life and property in the future," he said. "The Marshall Fire was a tragic wake up call to the year-round fire season and the changing nature of wildfires in our state and across the arid western U.S. My colleagues on the House Science Committee are no stranger to the damage of wildfires in their own home states, and we must take these lessons back to Congress to improve federal policy, continue to fight climate change and better prevent and mitigate against similar events going forward.”

Director of Colorado Division Fire Prevention and Control Mike Morgan is in charge of getting resources to fire chiefs and other emergency personnel when large fires escalate. 

Morgan said there are 64 counties in Colorado — a lot of them are along the Front Range — and that Boulder County is one of the counties he considers most prepared to be able to deal with a catastrophic event. 

He said the day of the Marshall fire, he could see the smoke plume from his Lakewood office, where his phone had started blowing up with calls. Over the course of the event, Morgan was able to bring 57 engines from 47 agencies around the state, to help. Still, damage from the fire was devastating. The high winds had made utilizing aircraft to fight the fire, impossible.

“This was a grass fire that turned into an urban conflagration,” Morgan said.

The Chinook winds firefighters faced that day are likely not anomalies, he said. They could happen again in future fires. Advances in technology created through a partnership with the Sierra Nevada Corporation, enabling early detection and intelligence, helped firefighters combat the Marshall fire using heat sensors and giving them the ability to see through the smoke. 

In addition to weather conditions and technology, more tangible aspects of response like mitigation and figuring out better evacuation routes were discussed during the session. 

Questions to the experts followed — the most asked (in various ways) was how do communities take lessons learned from the Marshall Fire and apply them to achieve a better result in future events.

Mayor Ashley Stolzmann, Louisville, gave an impassioned plea for fixing the root of the problem. She said communities need congress to take climate action or events like the Marshall Fire are going to continue to happen at a rate that’s totally unacceptable.

“And what happens then, is the cost is very great and the federal government comes to help pick up the cost but there’s such a huge unmet need,” she said. “So, taking climate action is what we need.”

Stolzmann said victims of the fire also need financial support because the insurance system is not structured in a way that protects homeowners and consumers. Which at the end of the day, she said, causes the federal government to pay even more.

“The more things we can do to collectively as a nation, the better off we’ll be,” she said. “Because this is a problem in scale that will take global action (to fix).”

Content originally published by the Canyon Courier on May 6, 2022.

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