by Thomas Peppert and Matthew Brown | The Associated Press
Denver – Late-season wildfires pushed by hurricane-force winds through two densely populated Denver suburbs seemed destined to leave a trail of death. Still, only two of the approximately 35,000 people who were unaccounted were forcibly evicted from their homes.
This is remarkably low in potential casualties, according to disaster experts and officials, and also because a public warning system did not reach everyone and winter fires put many people off.
Several factors broke in favor of the evacuation: the blast occurred during daylight hours and during the holidays, when most were at home in affluent neighborhoods where most residents had easy access to vehicles and could flee because there was an area in the area. There is an extensive road network.
It may also help that the area is staffed by emergency management personnel who have handled recent wildfires, major floods in 2013, and a supermarket mass shooting last March.
“It’s a really miraculous evacuation in terms of the big picture,” said University of Utah professor Thomas Kova, who researches emergency management and wildfire evacuation. “Close to such populated areas … there are fires everywhere and 100 mph (160 kph) winds – I think it’s unbelievable that only two people are missing.”
The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday that investigators looking for one of two bodies found partial human remains in an area near the suspected fire site. The office said the adult’s remains were found in the Marshall area, south of Boulder.
Sheriff Joe Pele said earlier that officers were searching for a man in the area. Sheriff and coroner’s officers continued to work at the scene.
Officers are separately searching for a woman who went missing in the hard-hit community of Superior.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said the fire destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and damaged hundreds of others, standing as a warning: “When you get a pre-evacuation or evacuation notice, hope for 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 down, and no one has received any such 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 during 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.”
Past fires have shown that wildfire warning system subscription rates can be as low as 30% to 40%, Kova said. But not every household needs to receive an emergency alert for it to be effective, as 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.
This avoided a scenario in which anxious parents scramble to find their children instead of immediately running away, said Lori Peake, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.
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 think questioning it is a bad thing. 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.
“If we had evacuation speed records, it would be in the top 10,” he said. “I don’t think anyone dropped the ball.”
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.
Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones, who was forced from his Louisville home, credited all the law enforcement agencies and fire departments that had gathered in the area from across the state to help with the evacuation.
“It was unprecedented. It saved homes. I have no doubt about it,” he said.
But he also pointed to an important factor that cannot be quantified – general complacency.
“When I was walking away from my home, I realized a few things,” he said. “The patience and grace to evacuate all the people was one. The people were kind, courteous, letting people in as they were all exiting. And that’s why I think so many people did well. ,
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.