Marshall Fire Update: Two Ignition Sources, Buried Fire and Power Line, Coal Seam Not Ruled Out

Later today the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department will post their analysis on their website.
Here’s a good story on it from the Colorado Sun.

It’s an interesting story of how homeowners burned material, put it out and buried it, and the wind came up a week later and blew the soil off and it started dry grass on fire. In dry areas with grasslands, dry grass is a natural feature for part of the year. Mountain View Fire determined that the reidents’ plan to extinguish it was reasonable and responsible. The Forest Service investigators and the Missoula Fire Lab were both mentioned as helping in the investigation.

We were talking about continuous improvement with regard to the NWFP; in this case, Boulder changed their rules to focus on water putting out fires.

So if we were to build a model of why this fire happened, we’d have:

Suppression Forces Stretched Thin by Several Ignitions, Covid
Wind- spread fire, plus air resources couldn’t be used.
Fuels- In many places with dry grass, grasses are eaten in the summer when they are green by grazing animals which reduces surface fuels. In fact, one one TV show I watched that day, the fire stopped at a rancher’s grazed area.

In our part of the country, these conditions are fairly common in the fall and winter and our county’s strategy is robust initial attack.
Originally coverage of this was all about climate change.

You might want to go back to my previous post on the Marshall Fire.

OK, so after unusually wet spring (is that AGW also?) precipitation below average and temperatures above average.  But of course averages are averages because.. some observations are higher and some are lower.  I would have said “the dry conditions we experienced (not the wet ones that encouraged plant growth?) are predicted to become more likely under AGW.”  That is very different from being a “result” of climate change.  Also there is a difference between the same conditions that used to happen, happening more frequently (we know how to adapt, and have to just do those things more often) and things that never happened before happening (where we need to respond differently). I’m not sure that distinction is often made.


I recommend Roger Pielke, Jrs. somewhat wonky but very thoughtful take on causality as it relates to the Marshall Fire.

Common narratives possibly contradicted by this example:

Current thinking: Cows are bad. And yet, they reduce grassy fuels and convert them to food.
Current thinking: Individual cars should be replaced by public transportation. And yet, people amazingly evacuated themselves and their animals quickly using.. individual vehicles.
Current thinking: Let’s build and maintain lots more power lines in dry places. And yet, maybe we should get better at maintaining the ones we have?
Current thinking: High density housing is best. And yet, house proximity caused fire transfer as in this Denver Post story.

Maybe communities in dry fire-prone ecosystems need to develop their own visions of how best to live with fire.

SUPERIOR – Too many houses built too close together on the tinder-dry high plains between Denver and Boulder led to the record Marshall firestorm losses topping $1 billion, insurance industry researchers found this week as they sifted through ashes and charred ruins.
“Conflagration happens when you get that proximity,” Roy Wright, chief executive of the insurance institute, said Thursday as his team began their investigation.

Spacing closer than 12 feet favors fire, researchers have established, and gaps between homes of 50 feet or more are advisable, Wright said. “Dispersion is one way to eliminate the domino effect” and with greater spacing “you would not have had so many structures lost.”

Re-making Colorado suburbs to endure worsening fires also will require clearing buffers at least five feet wide and “impeccably” bare, Wright said, along with screens on vents and retro-fitting with non-flammable roofing, siding and vegetation. Well-watered green lawns are less likely to burn than native grasses, he said.

And the mulch that residents increasingly use to help plants endure as temperatures rise “is like spreading match sticks around your home.”

From that story:

The question is what hardening would entail. A fire safety push for lower-density housing would collide with a push by some planners and developers toward higher-density “mixed-use” communities. Population growth in Colorado and other parts of the arid West has led some planners to encourage housing “units” clustered tightly like integrated circuits and surrounded by native vegetation that requires less water than lawns and parks.

Closer spacing and vegetation management for fire protection could clash with water conservation and other long-term objectives, said Molly Mowery, director of the Community Wildfire Planning Center, a nonprofit that guides town officials.

Looking at limits on growth opens “a huge can of worms,” Mowery said, anticipating that boosting fire resilience will require balancing climate warming preparedness measures. “There’s not going to be a solution that satisfies everything.”

10 thoughts on “Marshall Fire Update: Two Ignition Sources, Buried Fire and Power Line, Coal Seam Not Ruled Out”

  1. Sharon- This is a comment about the pervasive use of acronyms without defining them. You leave me guessing what AGW means. We had this discussion before, but by not defining acronyms you are limiting the usefulness of your otherwise great forum. Acronyms speed up communication for those who know them, but serve to limit the number of persons who can follow a discussion. I think also extensive use of acronyms by policy wonks contributes to the general frustration in society. Please define your acronyms. Thank You!

    • Sorry, John, that was from the past and I defined it then, you’re right I should define it each time.
      Anyway AGW is anthropogenic global warming.
      Climate change is just .. climate change. Happens on all kinds of cycles for all kinds of reasons.
      But some people use “climate change” to mean AGW. The problem with that is that it attributes all changes of climate to anthropogenic causes and usually CO2, not land use or other changes.

      But.. I have mostly given up using AGW and gone with the murkier “climate change” just because even I only have so much energy for swimming upstream..

      I definitely have been trying to do it, but thanks for the reminder!

    • Thanks John:

      I have always defined AGW as “Apocryphal Global Warming,” but apparently other people have different ideas. Here’s what I wrote on the topic:


      This is purposeful obfuscation by government “scientists” that started this nonsense when “keystrokes” and “memory” were problems with operating computers in the 1980s, so near as I can tell. Since then, the bureaucrats, enviros, and their legal staffs seem to enjoy this secret coding as it eliminates the riff-raff from engaging in their conversations. What’s worse than the multitudes of insider acronyms are the changed definitions they give their key words. HCP is a good starting point. You can learn the acronym, but that doesn’t mean you “understand” what it represents. Why the priests spoke Latin 600 years ago before they threatened you with Hell and asked for money. Same process.

  2. Utilities are not your friends.

    Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy screws customers in Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and New Mexico. In 2013 the firm cashed in on its own vulnerable downed power lines it fixed with federal money in Minnesota after a record snowfall linked to climate disruptions it’s partly responsible for. It proposed the remediation of contaminated areas to permit unrestricted use of the Pathfinder site and spent more than a million bucks on ballot issues in my home state of South Dakota.

    In Colorado alone the company and its shareholders got rich growing cannabis by burning coal and in 2014 Xcel gave nearly $20,000 to South Dakota’s Republican congressional delegation. In 2015 Xcel slow-walked grid ties for subscribers with home grown solar in its home state and in Colorado the syndicate charges homeowners .17 a kWh in base rates but only pays .08 cents per kWh to subscribers with rooftop solar.

    In 2016 an Xcel principal engaged in a violent crackdown of pipeline activists. In 2017 Xcel used federal production tax credits to build South Dakota’s biggest bird and bat killer. In 2022 a proposed ballot measure, called Initiative 93, would have required Colorado’s investor-owned utilities — Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy — to pay at least five percent of their revenues back to customers. Here in New Mexico Xcel Energy adds a surcharge for customers who choose a photovoltaic power grid tie.

    Recall Black Hills Energy started the 2002 Grizzly Gulch Fire that almost torched Deadwood and in California PG&E shelled out billions after its transmission lines started wildfires in 2018. South Dakota-based NorthWestern Energy burned down the town of Denton, Montana in 2021.

    Xcel gives twice as much campaign dough to Earth haters like Kristi Noem than to Democrats and just recently South Dakota’s public utility commission rejected a request for an eighteen percent rate increase but approved one for six percent. Why was the request so high? Because Xcel knew it helped to burn down over a thousand houses and caused over two billion dollars damage in Colorado’s Marshall Fire and a lawsuit had already been filed in March.

    In light of findings in the causes of the conflation a third lawsuit was filed against Earth hater Xcel in Colorado courts and experts expect many more. It could be the end of a horrendous history.

  3. If we spread out housing, we will increase the number or places and area it occupies and therefore the probability that it will be in the path of a fire. I think the “too close” argument is at best a wash, especially when considering all of the other benefits of housing density, and it would be best to prioritize managing the perimeters of developed areas to keep fires from entering them. (It seems like this case of homeowners burning in their back yard shouldn’t be happening in dense developments.)

      • “Buried embers can smolder for weeks, even months, after they are buried, Dougherty said, and the property owners “had no idea” that the wind would reach hurricane force days later.”

        Negligence is based on a “reasonable person,” and that can change. Now we know that both of these things could happen, we shouldn’t do it again. And an ordinance prohibiting burning in areas near dense developments might be appropriate. (And maybe Xcel would have been negligent in California, if the expectation/regulation there is that power would be turned off in such high winds.)


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