It’s tempting to say the Marshall Fire was a freak occurrence. The conditions were horribly perfect: dense and ever-spreading urbanization; an extremely amplified mountain wave causing wind gusts to top 100 miles per hour; an unusually wet spring followed by an extreme drought.
Considering these circumstances, it is no wonder investigators concluded that all attempts to halt the spread of this particular freak occurrence — which burned 1,084 homes to the ground, destroyed dozens of businesses and left two dead — “were doomed to fail.”
The truth, though, is that today freak occurrences are getting less and less freakish and becoming more and more normal occurrences.
Climate change is having a real and tangible impact on Colorado. Extreme weather events are getting more common. As the planet warms, the High Plains are getting drier. Colorado’s natural areas — more than ever before — are becoming kindling, and the climate is the furnace.
This means the next freak occurrence might be closer than we care to imagine. So now is the time for Boulder — and Colorado as a whole — to take action to ensure that we are doing everything in our power to be prepared for the next “unprecedented situation.”
Many of the first steps toward creating a more unified and coordinated fire response were laid out in the county’s after-action report, which was published last month.
The report brought together decision-makers and resources to “obtain critical elements of information, establish timelines, recount experiences based on areas of effort and extract what went well and what gaps or needs were present.” Basically, the intention of compiling the report was to learn, and the report offers plenty to learn from. The task now is to ensure that everyone is listening.
The most notable area for improvement, according to the report, is interagency communications and alert systems and, specifically, the “need to optimize communications between incident command and dispatch.”
“Communications on the radio was nearly impossible,” the report reads. “Cellphone communication also proved to be difficult as cell towers quickly became overloaded, and calls did not always go through in (a) timely manner.”
It is important, then, for the county, and the cities therein, to swiftly lay the foundations of interagency communication and standard operating procedures, and to set “pre-established decision-making agreements” to help with the alert and warning challenges inherent in a disaster on the scale of the Marshall Fire.
Also of the utmost importance is the expedient establishment of an accurate and effective wireless Emergency Alert System that does not require opting in. The current alert system, which has been put into place since the Marshall Fire, is in need of refining. During the NCAR Fire, people as far away as Wyoming got alerts. While it is always better to alert too many people rather than too few, not having accurate information can lead residents to be unsure if they truly need to evacuate.
According to the report, in order to enact changes to the necessary Emergency Alert System, local agencies must lobby the Federal Communications Commission. This means Boulder needs help from its representatives in Washington: Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and Rep. Joe Neguse. If refining the technology will help save lives, Colorado’s leaders should be stepping up to make it happen.
To be clear, the brave frontline workers who fought the fire went above and beyond the call of duty to try to control the blaze, minimize the destruction and keep our communities safe. Despite the problems with communication, chain of command, ineffective alert systems and the danger inherent in fighting a colossal urban wildfire, “people just showed up and made it work,” the report acknowledges.
Of course, it is unwise to look at such a tragic disaster and begin casting stones of blame. There is, as far as has been reported, no real blame to go around — save for the continued degradation of the environment that has seen extreme weather and drought become commonplace. Considering the tinderbox conditions in late December, it almost feels that everything that could have been done was done. Almost. Because there is no situation — no amount of freak occurrences — that excuse the loss of life.
So, let us commend all the harrowing work that occurred while asking our officials — elected or otherwise — to take the after-action report to heart. Lobby Washington for the necessary changes to the Emergency Alert System. Optimize communications between incident command and dispatch. Institute interagency operating procedures and standards. Establish the required decision-making agreements. Give the people on the front lines every chance of success.
Let’s ensure our community has all the tools and resources necessary to be even more prepared for the next freak occurrence.
Because, unfortunately, there will likely be a next freak occurrence.
— Gary Garrison, for the Camera Editorial Board