Were you one of the 19,000 people told to evacuate because of the NCAR fire? Do you have an evacuation go-kit packed?
In recent years, just about everyone in Boulder has been impacted in one way or another by fires and flooding, but our planning and preparation for future events is missing critical focus — public safety and maintenance.
Boulder County is one of the most fire- and flood-prone locations in Colorado, and that puts us front and center when it comes to the impacts of global warming.
We all know the next fire or flood is coming, probably much sooner than we hope. What is missing in Boulder’s planning and preparation is focus on public safety and maintenance of existing infrastructure.
The first thing Boulder County needs is a much better early warning system for fires, floods and emergencies. Our current system was inadequate in the 2013 flood and proved inadequate again in the 2022 NCAR fire.
Many in Boulder close to the fire never received a warning about the NCAR fire, but others were alerted and told to evacuate even though they were farther away from the danger.
Since Boulder County has extremely high risks, we should have the best early warning system we can get.
Next, we need better evacuation planning. Everyone in Boulder County should understand the evacuation routes and be ready. Evacuation planning and preparation is a low-cost, high-priority solution for protecting public safety that has not received enough attention or funding.
Plans should be in place to enable rapid evacuation and avoid traffic gridlock. Evacuation routes should be clearly marked and signed. Evacuation information must be provided to new residents and visitors. Plans for temporary changes to traffic patterns to speed the evacuation process should be put in place.
Importantly, Boulder also needs significantly improved maintenance of fire corridors and floodways. Without proper maintenance, even a small storm or fire could produce avoidable damage. Trees and brush must be thinned in key locations, and streams and channels must be regularly cleaned and cleared of debris to allow floodwaters to flow.
Viele Channel and Two Mile Creek are two examples of waterways that flooded in 2013, causing significant damage. Both are now badly overgrown and in need of maintenance. Every potential floodway and fire corridor in Boulder should be cleaned and cleared of debris annually, but this type of maintenance has been lacking for years.
Neighborhood organization and planning is another effective way to improve public safety related to fires and floods. In my neighborhood near Iris and 13th Street, which has been regularly impacted by flooding from Two Mile Creek over the years, we formed a flood preparation committee to try to ready ourselves for the next one.
We mapped our neighborhood and identified locations where floodwaters have moved through yards and streets. In the event of a flood, we now have a plan in place for a Paul Revere-style door-to-door alert, we have identified neighbors who might need extra help evacuating, and we have plans to work together to try to keep floodwaters away from homes. After the Marshall Fire, we are adding fire preparedness to our neighborhood plan in 2022.
It is well known the City of Boulder has the highest risk of flash flooding in the state of Colorado with Boulder Creek and its 14 tributaries running through the city’s limits. Since the floods of 2013, the Boulder City Council has mostly focused flood mitigation planning on a single large, expensive infrastructure project — the proposed dam and detention system at CU South — which would protect just a few hundred homes and only in the event of a 100-year storm.
The project design is based on a high-intensity, short-duration storm occurring over Eldorado Canyon and the South Boulder Creek drainage. Unfortunately, this system would be inadequate in flood conditions like those of 2013, when the heavy rain was widespread across all of Boulder’s drainages.
In 2021 the city began a project to explore flood mitigation across the other 13-plus drainages that impact Boulder, but at our current level of funding it would take more than 50 years to complete these plans. Likely cost overruns at CU South could push these other needed projects back even further. What is missing in Boulder’s planning is focus on less-expensive measures to protect public safety and maintenance of existing infrastructure.
Climate change means we will experience more wind-driven wildfires and larger and more widespread floods. Boulder needs the best advanced early warning system we can get and a new focus on evacuation planning along with better maintenance of existing facilities.
Neighborhood-scale organization and planning should be encouraged to prepare everyone in the community. Protecting public safety should be given the highest priority in emergency planning, ahead of protecting property.