Daylight, vacation time playing in ‘miraculous evacuation’ during fire: Colorado officials

The right combination of factors helped what could have been a highly lethal wildfire that ripped through two Denver suburbs leaving only two people unaccounted for.

A fire broke out in Boulder County at 11 a.m. on December 30, destroying nearly 1,000 homes and forcing about 35,000 people to evacuate the area.

With fires less common for this time of winter and Colorado’s public warning system not reaching many people living in the area, experts are even more surprised the fires didn’t cause more damage.

However, factors such as daytime and holiday fires proved to be helpful, as more people were at home and had access to a vehicle to get out. In addition, those factors also helped families in the sense that parents were ‘scrambling to find their children because students were home for vacation,’ said the director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder Lowry Peak. Were.

University of Utah professor Thomas Kova, who researches emergency management, called it a “miraculous evacuation.”

“If we had evacuation speed records, it would be in the top 10,” he said. “I don’t think anyone dropped the ball.”

Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones, who himself had to flee his home during the fire, called the police and fire department’s efforts to evacuate “unprecedented” and commended the community for its response.

“When I was walking away from my home, I realized a few things,” he said. “There was patience and grace to all the people out there. The people were kind, polite, letting people in as they were all exiting. And that’s why I think a lot of people did well to get out. “

Although more than 35,000 people had to evacuate their homes in the Boulder County wildfires, only two are currently unaccounted for. Above, members of the Stephens family filter the remains of their home destroyed by wildfires in Superior, Colorado, on January 4, 2022.
David Zalubowski / AP Photo

Colorado Governor Jared Polis said the fire destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and damaged hundreds of other stands as a warning: “When you get a pre-emptive or evacuation notice, expect it.”

Officials did not say how many people were contacted through the emergency system, which sends a recorded alert or text to the phone. The alert undoubtedly saved lives, but some residents affected by the fire later complained that they never found it.

Neil Noble, who fled his Louisville home on Thursday, said he first heard about the fire from a FedEx delivery driver who knocked on his door to drop off a package. After leaving for a job and seeing the traffic jam as a plume of smoke, he decided to leave with his three teenage children.

“I have spoken to dozens of people, even those whose houses have been burnt and no one has received any information,” he said.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pele said the alerts went off for people with landlines because their numbers are automatically enrolled in the system and people with cell phones and VoIP phones are enrolled online. He also noted that people with landlines may not have received an evacuation order because those same lines were burned by the fire.

According to notification system maker Everbridge, more than half of households in the country rely entirely on cell phones and do not have a landline.

Noble, who doesn’t have a landline and didn’t know he’d have to sign up for alerts on his cellphone, said getting thousands of people to sign up for the service manually would be an uphill battle, leading to There would be unnecessary risk. ,

“We were lucky that it happened later in the day, you know. You can see the plume getting worse,” he said. “At night it would have been fatal with a lack of communication.”

Previous fires have shown that wildfire warning system subscription rates can be as low as 30 percent to 40 percent, Kova said. But not every household needs to receive an emergency alert for it to be effective because people will quickly share the news with their neighbors and friends, he said.

The fire broke out in Boulder County shortly after 11 a.m. on December 30, when schools were closed and many people were either at work or working from home due to the pandemic.

Peake, who lived and worked a few miles from the burned area, said that most people in suburban areas who were burned had access to vehicles, unlike other disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, where a quarter of New Orleans was covered. The population had no private transport. ,

And while emergency information systems haven’t reached everyone, Boulder-area residents have seen enough fires, along with Front Range communities at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, to react quickly when smoke appears on the horizon, she said. .

Sharpening threat awareness is a growing understanding that climate change is making wildfires worse, even as subdivisions are creeping deeper into fire-prone areas.

“I think one of the shifts that follows this fire is that people will start thinking, ‘Am I at risk? I thought I was safe, living in the suburbs,'” she said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to question it. Anything that can help people be more prepared for the dangers we face is a good thing.”

Kova credits local officials for not hesitating to order an evacuation once the fire spread.

He compared the Colorado response with California’s 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 and destroyed the city of Paradise. The evacuation order for Heaven came after the city was already on fire and there was only one way out of the community.

Jones, who was forced from his Louisville home, credited all the law enforcement agencies and fire departments that had gathered in the area across the state to help with the evacuation.

“It saved homes. I have no doubt about it,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Boulder Fire Schools Reopen to Students Wildfire Colorado
Only two people are unaccounted for after the massive Boulder County wildfire, an achievement officials are saying are partly due to vacation time. Above, 8-year-old Charlie Ferreira walks through the remains of his grandfather’s home in a neighborhood destroyed by the Marshall Fire on January 2, 2022 in Louisville, Colorado.
Michael Siaglo/Stringer