Sunday, January 2, 2022

Colorado Wildfire: Lessons Learned


Photos source: photos taken from TV scenes of burning buildings in NW Colorado during the Marshall Fire

I'm sure many in the US, and even around the world, have heard about the devastating Colorado wildfire that swept through suburbs NW of Denver on Thursday, December 30, 2021. On a day we had Chinook force winds that were measured at 105 miles per hour in some areas, a fire developed in Marshall, Colorado (the cause is still under investigation at this writing) and quickly spread as a wildfire, incinerating everything in its path. A total of 991 homes were fully destroyed, 127 homes were damaged, businesses and hotels burned, countless family pets and livestock were killed or lost, and most sadly, as of this writing, 2 people are reported missing and feared dead. This devastating fire is being called the Marshall Fire but mainly affected the suburban towns of Superior and Louisville, and Rock Creek Village near Brookfield, Colorado.



The photos above are from the area of Colorado I live in--in a SW suburb of Denver.  There was a wildfire in the hogback outside our neighborhood on Monday, December 28th, 2021.  It was called the Oak Fire as the area it burned was mainly consisting of scrub oak and prairie grass.  This fire was determined to have been arson, but not many other details have been given about it as yet. It was not as windy that day, although there was a "Red Flag Warning" in effect.  A Red Flag Warning means warm temperatures, very low humidity, and stronger winds are expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger.  Something as small as a burning cigarette butt or sparks from a motor or a firecracker explosion can cause a major fire.   We received a pre-evacuation phone call through CodeRED, and soon after an "evacuate now" call. Our hearts were racing, and even though we thought we were prepared, we found we were not.  Although there have been minor fires in our area in the past, a special Fire Wise Committee was set up in our community to help get the word out about fire safety and wildfire preparedness, there is nothing that can really prepare a person for the actual event.

Here is a video link to see the way the wind was blowing and the smoke and fire from our fire department's Twitter feed click here: Oak Fire by West Metro Fire

Our area was very fortunate as aerial firefighting support was able to fly in after the winds disappeared towards sunset. Here is the Twitter notice our fire department sent out with a video link to see one of the water drops:

 "SEAT- single-engine air tanker- making a drop on hogback above the #OakFire. The wind has died down and fire behavior has lessened. All evacuations have been lifted. pic.twitter.com/s33l1AcETh


The photo was taken from a TV news video

Our Oak Fire was a mere 160 acres while the Marshall Fire up north burned over 6,000 acres. We were fortunate that no structures burned.  We were evacuated from our home but got the "all clear" call not long afterward, and we had a home to return to. We could never imagine that such tragic destruction was destined for our neighbors in the county above ours and our hearts break for them. 

Ways to help the Marshall Fire Victims:



Other information can be found on the Rocky Moutain PBS blog at this link.





What we've learned from this experience:

1) Never take a Red Flag Warning for granted and think "It can't happen here." 

It can and it probably will. The entire front range of Colorado from Wyoming to New Mexico is considered a "Wildland Urban Interface" (WUI) and wildfire is always a danger. Every state has WUI areas--many have much more chance of this danger than Colorado does! You can see more information about this on this website.

Changing climate is causing longer droughts, higher temperatures, and more frequent wind storms. Urbanization is making people build in places where once only grass grew. The increase in our state's population and tourism is creating more danger from fire starters such as cigarettes, barbecues, fire pits, fireworks, combustion engines, campfires, etc.  
All of Colorado’s biggest fires broke out in the past two decades and each of those spanned more than 31,000 acres, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety’s Division of Fire Prevention & Control. The state’s largest reported blaze was the Cameron Peak Fire, which burned more than 208,913 acres in 2020. The second-largest wildfire — East Troublesome — was also last year and burned nearly 194,000 acres.  The Marshall Fire is not the most extensive in acre size but it is the most destructive property-wise.
Hopefully, more will be done now to increase awareness of fire danger and mitigate the possible causes of fires as much as possible.  

It is hard to believe that when our neighborhood was built in the 1990s the houses had wood shake singles installed!! Obviously, most houses have replaced their roofs since then, but more fire-resistant building material should always be used in a UWI area. Families also have to reduce fire danger around their homes as much as possible by clearing debris and keeping gutters clear and roof vents should have metal mesh screens on them to prevent embers from falling in. 
Here is a helpful FEMA checklist for homeowners to use to prepare their homes and surroundings for the possibility of a wildfire.  

The government Ready website also has wildfire preparedness info.

2) Evacuate immediately when the order comes in. 

We are registered with CodeRED, which is an electronic emergency notification system that enables local public safety personnel to notify residents and businesses of emergencies that may require action. Alerts come via telephone, text message, and email. You should check with your local authorities as to what system your area uses to notify residents in case of an emergency and register with it.

Fire moves quickly and the most important thing to save is one's life. When we received the pre-evacuation CodeRED call for our area we should have packed up right away and have been prepared to leave. It is too late to gather things when the evacuation order comes in. At that point leave immediately--no hesitation.  Traffic quickly occurs, and increasing smoke makes visibility perilous. It is important to know all exits from your neighborhood and community in case one is blocked, and plan ahead where to meet with family members who may not be home. We found Twitter to be the most up-to-date way to communicate and get information on social media, so make an account and follow your local fire department and police department.

3) Make a list and be prepared. 

We learned the "P's" for preparation for a "Go Bag" in case of an emergency evacuation from our Fire Wise Committee:

People and Pets--have pet leashes and carriers readily available and pack food and water bowls

Papers, cell phones, and chargers, and important documents

Prescription meds and Eyeglasses

Pictures and irreplaceable memorabilia and jewelry

Personal computer, hard drive, backs ups

"Plastic" -- credit cards ATM cards and cash

My husband and I have a large empty plastic bin in our garage that has this list on a paper on top of it that we set up to see in case of evacuation, but even so, we estimate it took us 20 minutes of running up and down the stairs from our first floor to our second floor to gather what we needed.  We could see our local neighbors have the same dilemma as they were packing up their cars. We prided ourselves that we left first, but in retrospect, it took too long. If fire danger was imminent we should have left immediately.  Material things are not important and we have decided to prepare better for the future. This evacuation was a practice and from now on we are not storing anything important on our upper floor and we are filling that bin ahead of time as much as possible. Next time we will gather what we can when there is a pre-evacuation call and leave immediately when the evacuate call comes in.

This website and this one also have lists of  "Go Bag" necessities with the recommendation to have a flashlight, a portable fire extinguisher, sturdy shoes in case you have to run, N95 face masks to filter smoke, hand sanitizer, a small first aid kit, a whistle, sleeping bag or blanket, and to have a Family Communication Plan that designates an out-of-area friend or relative as a point of contact to act as a single source of communication among family members in case of separation. It is easier to call or message one person and let them contact others than to try and call everyone when a phone, cell, and internet systems can be overloaded or limited during a disaster.

4)  Document and Insure your Property. 

Review your homeowners' insurance plan yearly and make sure you have adequate coverage to rebuild.  The price of labor and materials have risen over the years and your insurance may be inadequate. 

Use your smartphone to video your belongings. Keep your inventory & photos outside the home or in the cloud. Make a video recording of your home. Video or photograph each room of your home. and document drawers and closets. Describe your home’s contents in your video. Mention the price you paid, where and when you bought the item. Remember to note important or expensive items.
Video your electronics, appliances, sports equipment, TVs, computers, tablets. Save receipts for major purchases. Store key documents in the cloud or fireproof case. Keep home inventory offsite or in the cloud. Video the inside of your garage  

Many documents and forms of identification are valuable to have access to immediately in case of an emergency--this government page has a list for Financial Preparedness. If you can make copies and keep them in a secure password-protected digital space.

We have lived through many emergencies in the past.  We lived in NYC during the 9-11 terrorist attacks, through many NYC electrical blackouts, blizzards, Hurricane Sandy flooding, and now we realize that wildfire will always be a risk we have to be prepared for.  Many of the websites I gave links to also have ways to prepare for other emergencies that can happen wherever you live.  No place is totally safe and being prepared for an emergency is a gift you can give yourself and your family.



A belated Happy New Year to all my readers!  I hope that 2022 will treat us kindly! 

We felt fortunate that we finally received a significant snowfall on New Year's Eve--7 to 8 inches of snow in our area, so now our fire danger is finally reduced. Our fire department actually declared the Oak Fire 100% contained today. It can take that long for a wildfire to be fully contained and no below-ground hot spots are burning which can cause flare-ups.  My older brother was an FDNY firefighter for many years and I've always had respect for firefighters, but after seeing how hard our county's firefighters worked on our local fire and then went north to assist in the Marshall Fire I have even more respect for all their hard work and dedication--they are true heroes and I thank them all!

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34 comments:

Sarah said...

Pat, wildfires are so frightening! Several years ago, there was one raging in a suburb just east of Austin. The scared earth stands as a reminder how quickly fires destroys. Thanks for this very informative post. Stay safe!

eileeninmd said...

Hello Pat,

Any fire is scary to me, it is tragic lives were lost and so many homes were burned. It is good to be prepared to leave, your life is the most important thing. Take care and stay safe. I hope 2022 is a good year for us all.
Take care, enjoy your day! Have a great new week!

Old Engineer said...

Thanks Pat. This update on the fires is a real eye opener. Francisco sent me your blog since my wife and I are also a Brooklyn expatriates via a long stopover in Washington, DC, and we now live in nearby Lakewood, CO., having moved here in 2020 for family reasons as well. Francisco and I went to grade school together, and I am a Full Blooded Italian (FBI). I like your Christmas cookie recipes, and have some of my own, handed down through generations of my family. If you'd like to connect, you can get my contact information from him. Hope to hear from you.

Ciao Chow Linda said...

Wow Pat. That was such a frightening fire and so devastating. It is particularly sad that two people lost their lives and who knows how many pets. You were so wise to plan ahead, and even though you say you could have been quicker, you were ahead of what most people, including me, would have already had prepared. Your list is invaluable and I am going to start working on a plan too. There's a lot to do, but you have to start somewhere.

Barbara Rogers said...

Glad you all missed any of the fires...or they missed you to be more accurate. I've high regard for firefighters, one son was a wildlands firefighter for years, and trained Americorps young adults as more firefighters in the Denver area. Very powerful forces of nature, wildfires! You've given a good overview of how all who live in drought stricken areas should be prepared! Staying safe has more and more areas of concern these days!

~Lavender Dreamer~ said...

We watched some of the images on the weather channel and prayed for everyone in the path of the fire. It is so sad and happens so quickly. We need to work on a list of things to take if we need to evacuate. We've done it in the past but it's time to do it again. I'm glad you are safe and your home. What a terrible loss. sweet hugs, Diane

Carol @Comfort Spring Station said...

great post filled with information. I've written about disaster planning several times but most people have no idea what to do. Many people say I don't have hurricanes, earth quakes, etc. like you do. You never know what will happen. Colorado has been in my prayers.

Linda W. said...

I'm so glad the fire in your area was put out quickly! My heart aches for the people who lost their homes in the most recent CO fire. We had a scare here in Oregon in September 2020 when a huge wildfire was burning near the SE Portland suburbs (Actually there were five giant wildfires burning in the state at that time). Thankfully it did not progress, but was scary nonetheless. This post is full of great information! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

NCSue said...

Things like this are difficult to fathom. Thank you for your post and for sharing it at https://image-in-ing.blogspot.com/2022/01/some-seasonal-memories.html.
Stay safe and well.

Jeanie said...

I am so grateful you are safe. I hadn't heard about the fire in your area on the 28th. This is a remarkable post for anyone in any area, even if it is one not inclined to have these types of disaster. My friend lives in Louisville. Her home was ok but one block over they lost it all. It made me stop to think what I would need in such a situation and I thought of a lot of this -- but not all. So thanks for this excellent list. Take care.

Yogi♪♪♪ said...

Those fires were just devastating.
I am glad you are taking things seriously and helping get the words out to others to be prepared.

My Dad fought fires for the US Forest Service. He talked about details in construction fo houses. that make a big difference in fire survivability. Wood shingles are not good, screens on attic vents are very good.

Ruth Hiebert said...

Those fires must be so scary. Praise God for the snow to bring some much needed moisture.

Tom said...

...could this have anything to do with climate change?

Reidland Family said...

We have family members close to where you live so these fires have been a big concern.

ellen b. said...

Go bags are such a good idea. It was so scary and sad to see the images and videos from this fire. So sorry for all the folk who lost everything.

Hena Tayeb said...

So sorry to about the Colorado fires.. it's devastating.

carol l mckenna said...

Glad you are safe ~ Be prepared is always good ~ never know what might happen ~ Informative and thoughtful post ~ Be safe, be well ~ Xo

Wishing you a peace filled day,

A ShutterBug Explores,
aka (A Creative Harbor)

Sylvia said...

Pat, Thanks for sharing and I am glad you are safe. Sylvia D.

Angie said...

Pat - so glad you and your home are safe. Heartbreaking for the folks around the Marshall Fire that were not so fortunate. Your post is a thorough review of how to be prepared. We had a rehearsal for that this summer when there was a lightning strike 5 miles from our house. It was quickly contained (God bless the fire departments) but it gave us a very valuable chance to "practice" our plan. Thanks for linking to Mosaic Monday, and I am looking forward to another fascinating year of posts from Colorado (and hopefully without any more fires.)

diane b said...

I'm glad snow has fallen and the danger has passed. Your post is full of great information. I must remember it for when we have another fire season. Luckily we missed getting one this summer due to the La Nina which has brought lots of rain.

Veronica Lee said...

So glad you are safe, Pat.

I'm so sad about the fires though - so devastating.

the 4 M's said...

I had seen some on TV but your post really makes it real. Preparation is key but yes, I can see how it would still take longer than planned. Glad you are were safe and away enough.
www.chezmireillefashiontravelmom.com

Villrose said...

This is so frightening. Incredible disasters.
I am glad you had a home to return to!
The best wishes for 2022!

William Kendall said...

Arsonists are beyond despicable.

Jim said...

Scary fires.

Jocelyn said...

So sorry to see this. Glad you are safe.

Joanne said...

What great informative links you've added! You have convinced me to add emergency preparedness to my list of goals for 2022. I am so sorry to hear of the devastating fires and it breaks my heart to know that arson was the cause in at least one of those cases. I am so glad to hear you finally got a good snow coverage and the fire is 100% contained.

Photo Cache said...

These wildfires are devastating, unfortunately, it seems that they are a yearly affair here in California.

Worth a Thousand Words

The Joy of Home with Martha Ellen said...

Oh Pat, I'm so glad you and your family are safe. Having a plan is so important and it looks like you are well prepared. When I saw this fire on the news at the end of December I thought of you! You are so right there are dangers no matter where we live. Do take care and be safe. Glad that snow has moistened the ground in your area.

Light and Voices said...

Oh my gosh! I am so glad that you and your husband are safe. You are an incredible kind person to share with us with what to bring in case of an emergency. Be safe, my friend.

Lorrie said...

These were terrifying fires for those in your area. My niece and her little family didn't lose their home, thanks be to God, but were severely shaken by the event. Having a 'go' bag/container is something we are encouraged to have on hand in case of earthquakes here. I like your idea of keeping an empty plastic bin handy. So glad that it finally snowed!

Spare Parts and Pics said...

So very sad. I didn't realize the extent of the devastation. I really appreciate your thoughts about "what we've learned". Very good information.

Lowcarb team member said...

Yes, these fires were shown on TV in the UK, so frightening and so devastating.
You've shared some very good information and advice in your post.

My good wishes.

All the best Jan

Coming Abstractions said...

My heart and prayers go out to you and all the families and victims. Thank you for sharing your experience and for the information on the Go-Bag and documentation. I live in California and need to get busy on this!