Snow covers the ashes and national media are moving on, but the situation remains daunting for Colorado communities devastated by the December 30 Marshall Fire, the most destructive blaze in the state's history.
The updated searchable damage assessment map maintained by Boulder County officials and partners shows in excruciating detail how a human-ignited, gale-driven grass fire, worsened by record heat and drought, became an urban inferno as it reached several towns, triggering house-to-house combustion and incinerating entire neighborhoods.
But if you look carefully, pathways to a safer future are revealed.
The most basic sign of hope is the lack of lethality, with only one person confirmed dead and one likely death - both outside urban areas - even as tens of thousands of people fled a fire that exploded with extraordinary speed. That success doesn’t minimize the pain for those closest to the victims.* But it says emergency response agencies, media, businesses and the public achieved something wonderful, and largely hidden by headlines focused on the physical destruction. Hopefully the evacuation story will spread to all similar areas.
The other hopeful glimmers emerge by looking at outliers - homes that didn't burn. Here was one in Louisville captured on drone video by Brandon Clement at dawn on December 31.
You can see others scattered across the destruction zone.
It's too early to say that fire-resistant construction and landscaping were the key factors that saved the day in these cases. Luck often plays a role, as well. But it's not too early to say that maybe, just maybe, evidence from the Marshall Fire will finally tip these fire-struck communities and others in urbanizing regions facing a similar mix of exposure and hazard to reduce dangerous vulnerability.
Let's hope so.
Last Friday, just minutes before President Joe Biden visited the Colorado disaster zone, I was able to do an on-scene (albeit on screen) interview with Noah Abrams, who owns one of a group of more than two dozen recently-built homes featuring fire-resistant siding and landscaping in the town of Superior. I'd first connected with Abrams via Twitter after he posted about the survival of these homes the morning after the calamity.
With some Twitter shorthand cleaned up, this is what Abrams (@noabrams) posted: "We live in a new-build house in Superior. All 27 homes built the same way survived while everything else around burned down. I believe it could have been the cement fiberboard siding that saved us."
Even though they were downwind of an older neighborhood that was completely destroyed, even though they were pelted with firebrands of molten plastic and other urban fuels carried on hurricane-strength gusts, all the homes are indeed intact.
Here's the video of my virtual meetup with Abrams, who kindly toured his unburned block:
For decades, seasoned and war-weary wildland firefighters, fire scientists, federal agencies and disaster-risk experts have been urging communities across the heating, combustible and crowding West to change how they build - and to do so not just in fire-adapted forests and grasslands, but in densely constructed towns and suburbs downwind of these places.
Too often, communities have been designing their own destruction.
As former wildland firefighter and fire historian Stephen H. Pyne told me last week, in far too many places, people are simply moving fuel - taking forest-equivalent volumes of flammable wood and reconstituting it in the shape of a town. Just add an upwind ignition - and backyard propane tanks and cars with tankfuls of gasoline.
Too often, communities have seen the "wildland-urban interface" as a mapped boundary between combustible nature and neighborhoods instead of a set of conditions that can occur well inside the human-built side of such maps, Molly Mowery of Community Wildfire Planning Center told me in a Sustain What video chat last week.
And, as I've written for years, drawing on the work of Headwaters Economics and others, the cost of fire-wise building is extremely low. Here's a great primer: Building a Wildfire-Resistant Home: Codes and Costs.
On his visit to the disaster zone, President Biden appropriately alluded to the climate change components of his "Build Back Better" and infrastructure legislation.
"And, you know, the situation is a blinking code red for our nation, because the combination of extreme drought - the driest period from June to December ever recorded - ever recorded; unusually high winds; no snow on the ground to start - it created a tinderbox - a literal tinderbox.," he said.
But the president missed a glaring opportunity when he added, "And, you know, we can’t ignore the reality that these fires are being supercharged. They’re being supercharged by a change in the weather."
Yes, extreme heat and drought associated with global warming are contributing to wildfire intensity and spreading the season wider.
But the scale of losses in fire disasters is being supercharged by the availability of fuel. And as the Marshall Fire showed, glaringly, one key to cutting losses is reducing burnable fuel in and around houses.
Let's hope that a large portion of the fire-resilience funding in the federal infrastructure package Congress voted for late last year goes to communities to build forward safer.
There's more work to be done by officials at all levels, from federal to local, to overcome inertia and spread fire-safe building and land-use practices, particularly in states like Colorado that cede almost all such efforts to the local level. Boulder County's updated fire-focused building codes don't apply in incorporated areas or towns like Superior and Louisville, which saw most of the damage.
The West isn't going to retreat from wildfire. The allure of life among woodlands or grasslands is as powerful as the attraction of coastal living. But just as coastal communities have begun to pursue "managed retreat" in some places and are built to flood in others, communities abutting fire-prone wildlands are, always too slowly it seems, starting to come to grips with the need to change how they build to accommodate the hazards around them.
But the biggest shaper of losses, by far, is actions, or inaction, by communities in harm’s way.
Without community-scale buy-in, individual actions reducing fire risk can be overwhelmed by wider vulnerabilities, said Lisa Dale, a Columbia University Climate School scholar with long experience in wildfire policy in the West. She was part of one of my three Sustain What webcasts on the fire last week.
There has to be collective action, Dale said. "If your property has been treated and risk-reduced for wildfire, that only does you so much good if all your neighbors still have untreated properties with lots of flammable material," she said. "our property is likely to still be overwhelmed if a fire should get started."
It's akin to vaccination, I noted, with the risk of damage maximized when participation is maximized. And of course that just shows how hard this can be in a country where collective action is often opposed.
Of course the same challenges are there in tornado and hurricane country, where a house or business built to survive high winds can be a shelter, while one destined to be ripped apart can shower nearby residents with deadly debris.
"These homes call to mind the home in Mexico Beach, FL, that survived the 2018 Hurricane Michael. We had similar examples here in New Jersey with Sandy: older-construction homes devastated, new up-to-code homes relatively unscathed."
Here's a short excerpt from my video interview with Noah Abrams.
Andy Revkin - Could you just say say where you are?
Noah Abrams - We live in the Rogers Farm community, which is in Old Town Superior. Old Town Superior was pretty much devastated during the fire. But when we came back to our homes the next day, they were all still standing, all the ones that have been built within our community.
Andy Revkin - What does that feel like? You're surrounded by families who lost everything?
Noah Abrams - Well, first it was confusing because we had all kind of written it off and expected that our homes would be gone. So there was a feeling of joy that our home was still here. But at the same time, wow, we're just surrounded by people we know in the community that have lost everything and are going to need to rebuild from scratch.
He shows us a neighbor’s unburned home.
You can see all the charred parts on it, maybe. It used to be a bright white color. Now it's yellowish, with black spots on it, but it's still standing. Except for a lot of soot and ash inside the house everything was as we left it. But if you look across the street, you can see total devastation all the way down the entire block. Everything's gone. But on this side of the street, everything's still there.
Andy Revkin - A number of my friends from the Boulder area, said this one really caught them by surprise. These are densely built exurban, suburban, urban areas, not your typical zones where the fires happen. Did that feel like it was in the wind the other day?
Noah Abrams - Absolutely. I grew up in the foothills. My parents still live in the foothills of Boulder. I had decided I don't want to live in in the foothills myself because I was worried about the fire danger. The fire danger was always looming when we lived in the foothills. In fact, we had to evacuate once and it was a really scary time. So when we bought our house out in Superior, I thought, okay, this is great. We’re close enough to open space and I can still enjoy nature, but I'm not in the foothills where we have forest fires.
Well, little did I know that we would be facing a fire every bit as devastating as some of those forest fires they get in the foothills.
Andy Revkin - Were you all home at the time?
Noah Abrams - We were, and I didn't really know about it until I was alerted by a neighbor. And even after looking out the window, I didn't think much of it because I didn't think there was ever a chance that we'd have a fire that would rage through these suburban areas. But after about 10 minutes, I started to see smoke coming by our windows. And we evacuated in about five minutes.
Andy Revkin - Did you have like a plan, or were you impromptu?
Noah Abrams – It was very much impromptu. When we when we lived in the foothills, we always had a go-bag and had an idea of what we do if there's ever a forest fire. But living here, I never even thought it was a possibility, so we hadn't even thought about it. I grabbed a few of the things and got out as quickly as I could.
Abrams shows how wind-carried embers, including a piece of flaming plastic, struck the fiber-cement siding with no effect but also ignited a wooden fence.
He also showed the unplanted surroundings of the houses.
There could obviously be many factors that led to this block being saved. But it doesn't hurt to have these houses built for fire.
Whether you live in fire country or face other kinds of hazards, I hope you'll look around your own community for vulnerabilities that can be reduced and see what you can do to make things better.
Please post your experiences in fire zones if you live in relevant regions, or your thoughts on how to cut risk from such environmental hazards anywhere, particularly when full community participation is needed.
Here's a closing tweet from the great disaster-risk expert and practitioner Ilan Kelman, supporting my call for a "great vulnerability shakeout":
* I initially failed to mention losses of people's non-human companions; explore the Twitter flow of missing pets.
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