The Marshall Fire: Wind, Grasslands, Suburbs and Towns

AP image of houses burned in the Marshall Fire covered by snow

A few thoughts on the tragedy of the Marshall Fire. I spend a fair amount of time in Boulder County, and watched the coverage in real time.

This is an area where no one expected a fire to have those kinds of impacts in those suburban neighborhoods. There’s been many grass fires and high winds but nothing before like this.

But given that and the speed that the fire moved,  evacuations apparently went smoothly. From what I’ve read, 35,000 people were evacuated and currently two are missing. Governor Polis called this “our New Year’s miracle.”

Not to speak of the difficulties of moving large animals quickly as in this video.

Governor Polis said that this wasn’t a wildfire, but rather a suburban and urban fire.  He pointed out that houses aren’t just houses but also homes, sanctuaries for families and “reservoirs of memories.” He got at the deeply personal and emotional aspect of losing your home.. something that is often in news stories, but harder for us wonky types to address (“social values?”) because we can’t quantify it.

Observing the reaching out of support across county and state lines, it was affirming that when tragedy strikes people want to help regardless of the divisions that occupy so much space in the media.

The Overwhelming Power of Overwhelmingly Bad Luck

Then there’s the almost unbelievably unlucky timing of the ignition event.  As you see in the photos above, there was a serious snowfall in the same area the next day.   If the ignition had happened Friday or later, the story would have been completely different. Or when it was not so windy.  Or perhaps later in the year when this snowfall has had a chance to stem some of the dryness.

Climate or Not (or “made more likely by some unknown percentage”)

Wildfire disasters have increasingly been characterized as due to climate change.  Historically, there have been a great many grass fires and high winds in the area, but until the last twenty years or so, not as many subdivisions.  So it seems like all those changes (grass burns fast, houses not) are interwoven, and difficult or impossible to tease apart.  Especially since the ignition source appears to be people living in places where they probably weren’t living twenty years ago.  For the foreseeable future we are stuck with a) whatever weather is happening and b) people’s need for housing in either grasslands, shrublands or forest (pretty much all we have to choose from in the Denver metro area). Here’s a story from the Colorado Springs Gazette that talks about some history and quotes some fire scientists in California.

Topography and development or lack of development, played a role in the disaster.

Boulder is rightfully proud of its open space.

The City of Boulder is an island of development in a ring of city and county open space. But open space means grassy prairies, and dry prairie grass has always been a serious fire hazard, just as it was in 1910.

This is from the Denver Post.

The snow’s arrival to the Front Range on Friday was expected to help authorities’ efforts to snuff the remaining fire.

However, climate scientists were unsure how much relief the snow ultimately will provide, given the increasing drought and warm temperatures the Denver metro area has faced this fall. The conditions, which have become more common due to climate change, provided all of the ingredients needed to spark a wildfire, they said.

“That’s made for a quite extreme climate,” said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. “We don’t experience that often.”

I’d argue that there is one more ingredient needed to spark a wildfire.. ignition. More likely in inhabited landscapes.

Importance of Gasoline-Powered Vehicles in Dealing with Emergencies and Their Aftermath

Furthermore, in order to adapt to current conditions (with an unknown component x of climate change)  communities need to use fossil-fuel powered vehicles to evacuate people and animals, fight fires, and so on. Also aircraft, in general, but in this case, they were unable to fly due to high winds in this case.

Over the break, I was catching up on my New Scientist reading.  NS is a publication from Britain. It seems common there for people to assert that for the sake of the environment people need to live in apartments, give up cars (including electric ones) in favor of public transit and riding bikes, and perhaps ride-sharing.  When it comes to evacuations, with fires moving at a great rate of speed, it’s easy to see that this approach could become a problem, and not just in rural areas. Not to speak of the trucks pulling the trailers to evacuate large and small animals.

Burning homes and other infrastructure release carbon, plus a variety of other nasty chemicals into the atmosphere.  People are going to rebuild.  New homes require lots of wood and other construction materials, plus large (fossil-fueled) trucks carrying them.  If the fires had been kept out of their communities and not burned their houses,  then that would seem to have less of a carbon impact. I’m a big fan of both/and- “preferably keep fires out of communities, but also homeowners invest in protection.”  I don’t really understand who decided that this should be either/or, or why anyone listens to them.

Fuels Always Matter

Grass burns differently than wooden fences, houses and so on.  One shot on the news showed the fire stopping where a farmer/rancher had had cattle grazing recently, as he said, due to less fuel. Perhaps there is a house proximity that is too close for fire conditions.  This is again an issue that would go against “densification is always great,” which is part of the current community planning view.

Everyone  Can Learn From Well-Funded Communities

More well-off communities are better equipped to deal with disasters.  There’s a great deal of different kinds of institutional and financial support. Broomfield and Boulder counties are among the counties with the lowest poverty rates in Colorado. While it may be a general truth that “disasters unequally affect the disadvantaged,” in certain cases disasters do affect the relatively advantaged. By studying how they approach the problem, other communities can learn. Among the houses that survived and the ones that were burned, will they be able to figure out differences? Or was it again some form of bad luck (wind patterns and so on)?


My heart goes out to all who have been affected by this fire, and my appreciation for all those who have and are reaching out and helping. For those interested, here’s a list of places to donate.





7 thoughts on “The Marshall Fire: Wind, Grasslands, Suburbs and Towns”

  1. Your reference to a proposed living situation described in your New Scientist magazine helped me remember hearing something similar from the Sierra Club back in the late ’80s (or early ’90s). I find interesting that such an idea is relevant 30+ years, not so much as a preferred social choice, but rather as a debatable alternative. In the Sierra Club’s case, I believe their proposal for more urban residency was to benefit the natural world by preventing it from being overly developed. It appears the NS article advocates the same thing.

  2. Counties should be able to fine property owners who fail to create defensible space or clear dry fuels. Well-funded local and volunteer fire departments could do it and should burn road ditches to create buffers where professional private companies don’t exist.

  3. Colorado’s Marshall Fire tragedy can’t help but recall California’s Oakland Hills Fire of 1991. Combine grass, high velocity dry wind, an ignition source, and flammable structures, mix well, and before you know it: 25 people killed, 150 injured, 2,843 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units destroyed. And, as Wikipedia reminds us, the 1923 Berkeley fire combined the same ingredients to wipe out 584 homes.

  4. Will be interesting to see if they can determine the initial mechanism for home ignition. Sometimes it’s direct flame impingement, sometimes ember cast, etc. Of course, in densely built areas, house-to-house exposure is how you torch off whole subdivisions.

    Knowing the mechanism can aid in determining fire safe practices for the housing already in this type of WUI environment.

  5. There were a couple other fires they managed to get out. One just N of where 36 joins N Broadway, and another on the way to lions just E of the road opposite where Middle Fork Rd leads into the Crestview subdivision. I was working in the woods up on the side of the hill of that subdivision. The woods I was in were widely spaced ponderosa and I could watch the fires without too much difficulty. There’d been another fire out by 55th and Arapahoe the week before.

    It’s hard to tell looking S where exactly things are. There were dust clouds kicking up too. Wind was blowing hard. When the marshall fire turned from white smoke to black I decided to go home. 36 was closed to Bldr. and I had to drive through southern Longmont. The smell of burnt plastic hung in the air and was still there the next morning. I thought I’d left something on the stove.

    Boulder is surrounded by open space. Gives the town a feeling of being a separate entity rather than unbroken sprawl. It also gives a fire a chance to run. In my mind I started thinking of what things are like to the W of our house. Some subdivisions interspersed with open space, that’s how they like to build. W of the open spaced subdivisions is ag. I’d a lot rather have Ag for neighbors than subdivisions with their bike trails and tall grasses.

    • Som, thanks, I was watching one of those fires as well…thanks! I wonder whether Boulder County runs cattle on their open spaces like Douglas County does to help keep down the grass.

  6. “I don’t really understand who decided that this (home protection and community protection) should be either/or, or why anyone listens to them.” I don’t really understand who decided that this is what was decided.


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