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Smoke rises from the Calwood Fire on Oct. 17, 2020, the day the blaze broke out in Boulder County. The wildfire eventually burned 10,113 acres and destroyed 20 homes. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Smoke rises from the Calwood Fire on Oct. 17, 2020, the day the blaze broke out in Boulder County. The wildfire eventually burned 10,113 acres and destroyed 20 homes. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

One year ago this weekend, on Oct. 17, 2020, Boulder County sheriff’s senior firefighter Kerry Webster was sitting at a fire station with a sense of dread as she kept an eye on fire conditions.

“It was definitely dry and hot and windy, and we just kind of had an indication it was a potential fire day,” Webster said. “Then we got toned out for a smoke report at Cal-Wood (Education Center).”

Smoke reports, especially in dry conditions, are not unusual for firefighters in the western foothills of Boulder County. But within minutes, Webster said she knew this was no campfire or a single burning tree.

Smoke and flames were visible from Nelson Road and 39th Street two days after the Calwood Fire broke out Oct. 17, 2020.  (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

“As we drove up we could already start to see smoke and realized very quickly it was growing significantly in a very short amount of time,” Webster said. “Once we were there, there was no chance that our small engine was going to be able to do anything.”

Webster is no stranger to wildland fires, and even fought the 2010 Fourmile Fire. But she said she has never seen anything like what she saw when the Calwood Fire began.

“I had not seen fire move that quickly,” she said. “It almost swirled and would just race up the hillside, it was fire behavior I had not seen before.”

In the first few hours, the fire quickly grew and began prompting evacuations in Boulder County.

“When reality kind of hit that we had to start evacuating, that’s when the emotion came through that this could be a lot more than what was initially anticipated,” wildland firefighter Cameron Greer said.

Greer spent the first night of the fire on U.S. 36 north of Boulder, working to try and keep the fire west of the highway.

“Watching it come over the foothills was pretty intimidating, knowing as soon as it crossed over to the east side, you’re talking about a lot more structures than right at the base of the foothills,” Greer said.

Webster, who was working on fire lines, said the first week of fighting the Calwood Fire was an exhausting experience, with crews spread out all over the burn perimeter.

“It felt very daunting, knowing some engines were kind of that last line of hope,” Webster said. “There was a lot of responsibility and a lot of weight on our shoulders, but we had such dedicated individuals. Days three, four and five was when everyone was working super hard.”

Crews dealt with high winds and rough terrain in trying to contain the rapidly spreading fire.

“Every day presented a new challenge,” Greer said. “With more winds coming in, it made the fire a little bigger and it just kept building.”

It wasn’t until some rain and sleet finally moved into the area about a week in that Webster said she felt a sense of relief.

“That was kind of a turning point where I thought we could breathe a little easier,” Webster said. “It wasn’t until we got that massive precipitation that I started to feel a lot more comfortable, and that we were going to make some progress.”

Almost a month and 10,000 acres later, fire crews reached full containment on the fire. While the fire destroyed 20 homes, Webster said considering how fast the fire was moving it was amazing nobody was killed and more homes weren’t lost.

“The preparedness that we worked on, to see it play out and not lose any lives, that was a tremendous group effort,” she said. “I was really impressed with that.”

Webster said Boulder County crews helping on other wildfires across the state and even the country helped prepare them for what was to come.

“It was literally trial by fire last year,” Webster said. “When Calwood came around we had already seen extreme fire behavior through the season, and while it feel different in your own hometown backyard, there hadn’t been something we didn’t see before.”

Luckily, firefighters in Colorado so far this year have not seen the type of widespread fires that ravaged the state in 2020.

“Were still waiting for our ‘season ending event,’ where we have enough moisture over a long enough duration that fuels are able to absorb moisture to really limit fire growth,” Boulder County sheriff’s fire management officer Seth McKinney said. “But at the same time we had a pretty decent monsoon season across Colorado. Last year the monsoons never really showed up.”

But as the 2020 fires proved, Boulder County and Colorado are not out of danger yet, given how climate change has impacted weather patterns.

“‘Fire season’ has always referenced the conditions,” McKinney said. “We still continue to call it a fire season because historically there was a season that those conditions have been really prevalent. The challenge now is that those fire conditions now could be there all year long, under a number of different situations.”

For firefighters, that means being constantly aware that the next column of smoke could be another battle.

“It really is truly a fire year,” Webster said. “We all still kind of feel the nervousness in October.”