During the cold winter months in areas east of the Rocky Mountains, it is not uncommon for strong, gusty winds to blow from the mountains down across the plains.
This meteorological phenomenon is called a Chinook wind, or a downslope windstorm.
It was this kind of wind that blew on Dec. 30, and the same kind of wind that would transport flames over 6,000 acres in less than 12 hours during the Marshall Fire.
Five months after the Marshall Fire, local, state, and federal officials, first responders, along with scientists from NOAA and members of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee, gathered at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder during a roundtable discussion to share agency perspectives, forecasting technologies, and to suggest mitigation tactics to prepare for future fire disasters.
“We know that what we’re doing isn’t enough,” said Jennifer Mahoney, director of NOAA’s Global Research Laboratory, to the group at large.
After the Marshall Fire, NOAA began developing a new technology to map potential locations of a fire start. The Hourly Wildfire Potential model gives 24 to 48 hour indications of where fires are likely to start, based on data temperature, winds and soil moisture data.
This new technology will be an essential tool in predicting future fire disasters, which may be more common along Colorado’s Front Range than previously thought.
Michael Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, pointed out at the roundtable that there is a high potential for a fire similar to the Marshall Fire to occur in other communities.
“This was not your traditional wildland urban interface event. This was a grass fire that turned into an urban conflagration,” Morgan said.
“While we sit here and say that was a fluke event — none of us have seen this in our careers — how many thousands of communities are there along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains coming down from Canada to the United States that are subject to Chinook winds?” Morgan asked.
“This is not an anomaly. This is something we need to be thinking about and preparing for in the future. As much as we’d like to think that this will never happen again, I’m afraid it’s going to,” Morgan added.
Congressmen Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), and Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) both traveled to be at the roundtable as well. McNerney represents California’s ninth district, of which the town of Paradise belongs. Paradise was almost destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire, which remains California’s most deadly and most destructive fire to date.
McNerney shared his experience with fire mitigation with the group, as well as asked for suggestions about how the government can help with disaster preparedness on the federal level.
“We need you to take climate action. This is going to continue to happen at a rate that is completely unacceptable,” replied Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann.
“We need more financial support,” Stolzmann added.
“Why do we need more financial support? Because our insurance system is not structured in a way that protects homeowners and consumers. So at the end of the day, our federal government is paying because we have a system that doesn’t protect consumers, and is paying for our inaction for working on reducing carbon emissions,” Stolzmann said.
In addition to direct climate action, several members of the roundtable spoke about emergency notification alert systems in place.
After many Louisville and Superior residents reported not having received any emergency notification warnings on their phones before the Marshall Fire, Boulder County has been working to improve the wireless communication systems to reach people when disaster strikes.
However, a gap still remains between emergency notifications and disaster mitigation. Mike Chard, director of the Boulder Office of Emergency Management, suggested to the members of Congress at the table that narrowing down the areas receiving emergency evacuation alerts would be beneficial in future disasters.
“Being able to get those wireless alerts more to be geocentric so that we’re reliable in the strategies for police and firefighters to make the decision to evacuate communities is helpful,” Chard said.
Chard also said the current wireless communication system, which has been updated since the Marshall Fire and has been tested so far on three different grass fires, is “bleeding all over the county.”
For instance, some residents reported having received wireless emergency alerts for the Table Mountain Fire on April 20, despite living outside the immediate incident area.
“Anything we can do to improve that system to narrow it down would be very helpful for local communities who are having to evacuate large areas,” Chard added.
Another problem with issuing disaster warnings on a large scale is that it can lead to issues with evacuation.
“We have to be very strategic and balanced with those efforts. We don’t have enough roads to move 30,000 out of communities. Mass communication leads to chaos in evacuation, and creates a challenge to strategically get people out of harm’s way without creating gridlock,” said Boulder County Sheriff’s Office Division Chief Curtis Johnson.
Gov. Jared Polis concluded the roundtable by offering solutions the state has come up with to help diminish the effects of fires in the state, including increasing state funding for aerial response capabilities, improved dispatch, as well as for Colorado’s State Wildland Inmate Fire Team.
“The sad reality is that we’re really transitioning to prepare for year-round response, rather than fire season,” Polis said.