house on fire

Hard truths about a hard time: Marshall Fire devastation illustrates conditions leading to wildfire disaster

The fires just before the New Year in Boulder County have been devastating in terms of property loss and human suffering. I join with all my colleagues in sympathy for those who have been left homeless and those who have been traumatized by the experience of fleeing their homes with minutes to spare. In our world of wildfire and disaster resilience, we sadly know there are many others who are retraumatized by watching this event unfold, as they have so recently experienced similar losses. In addition to supporting our friends and neighbors as they recover, it is of the utmost importance that we use this time to understand what happened and to communicate how we might change future outcomes.

The Marshall Fire illustrates an important truth about wildfire disasters. For decades, attempts at disaster reduction and mitigation have relied on a definition of “wildland/urban interface” to try to describe the location, or the line, where we might take protective steps when building in areas prone to nature’s fire. And for at least 20 years, NFPA has argued for an alternate description of the so-called interface, as a set of conditions that can exist nearly everywhere. In other words, wildfire disasters (what happens when homes and other structures ignite during wildfires) can happen almost anywhere given just the right conditions of vegetative and structural fuel, weather and topography.

The destruction caused by the Marshall Fire, with nearly 1,000 homes and other structures obliterated, was the result of a veritable perfect storm of fire conditions. Unseasonable warm and dry conditions have persisted in the Front Range area of Colorado for months, with virtually no snow in fall or early winter. As described in a recent New York Magazine Intelligencer interview with climate scientist Daniel Swain, the region is subject to strong winds, especially in winter, that materialized on a sunny day at the end of December. With an ignition on a warm and windy day, in bone-dry vegetation, the wildfire took off through grass and brush and began to ignite the other plentiful fuel source in the form of homes and commercial buildings. With wind gusts that would qualify for a strong Category 2 hurricane along the coastline, there was no stopping the spread of flames and especially embers that penetrated vulnerable buildings through vents, cracks, garage doors and other openings. Outside, once any combustible material – grass, shrubs, mulch, a rattan doormat, a parked vehicle – ignited, it was bound to burn and to then ignite the next combustible fuel – porches, decks, combustible siding on exterior walls, outbuildings. In the dense development throughout Superior, Louisville and surrounding areas, buildings aflame easily ignited the next home, the next business, and so on. The result was urban conflagration that Swain described in the interview as not unlike the Great Fires of history (London, Chicago, and the list goes on).

The reality that home destruction from wildfire can happen nearly anywhere complicates attempts to regulate new construction and to reach vulnerable residents with vital safety information. As the past week has shown, however, safety advocates and policymakers must embrace the complexity of this problem, tell the hard truths, and recommit to ending wildfire disasters. NFPA launched Outthink Wildfire last year for this very reason. We owe it to our friends and neighbors to work to make this kind of destruction rare instead of recurrent.

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Michele Steinberg
Director, Wildfire Division, Disaster safety educator, land use planning advocate. Believes we can end home destruction from wildfires.

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