When South Metro Fire Rescue crews helping respond to the Marshall Fire arrived at their staging area, the site was surrounded by several buildings engulfed in flames.
Smoke laid flat, “a very telling sign of a wind-driven event” and “a big red flag for us,” South Metro spokesman Eric Hurst said. In those conditions, the likelihood that first responders are able to quickly control a fire plummets. Firefighters can expect low visibility. Debris falling. Structures collapsing.
As South Metro personnel got to work, they first tried stopping the fire from spreading through grassy areas, but 20- to 25-foot flames leapt low across the ground, “enough to get across a road.”
“Behavior like that is way too dangerous, No. 1, to put firefighters in front of, and No. 2, even if we went to try, the probability of success is pretty much zero,” Hurst said.
As hundreds of homes burned, South Metro crews shifted focus to saving properties. “For hours and hours” the firefighters made impossible decisions about which houses they could save and which they could not, Hurst said.
Crews made successful stands, like in one cul-de-sac, where they prevented a house ablaze from igniting the homes neighboring it.
In other cases, firefighters salvaged what they could in a race against time. They drug belongings from one home’s garage, piling the items in the street before fire could consume the property.
“Generally, when we do that we are looking for photos on the wall,” Hurst said. “Anything that looks like it is a keepsake.”
Within hours, the Marshall Fire became Colorado’s most destructive in history, destroying more than 1,000 structures, leveling entire neighborhoods and forcing thousands to flee, many after the fire was already upon them. At least one man died and another person remained missing as of press time.
Hurst said the chief reaction he heard among South Metro personnel was “a general sense of astonishment” at the fire’s speed — winds blew more than 100 mph — and the sheer loss of property.
One more element to the Marshall Fire quickly gained attention — that the disaster swept through urban and suburban communities, similar to others in the Denver metro area.
“Douglas County and the entire Front Range is susceptible to wildfire,” said Tim Johnson, director of the Douglas County Office of Emergency Management. “It’s our number one threat.”
The risk is also “a year-round threat in Douglas County,” said Mike Alexander, the emergency services manager with the county OEM. Throughout the year, the county OEM keeps an eye on fire conditions and makes decisions about calling on various aviation support the county has on contract, he said.
And in a day and age where “almost every year it feels like we have some record-breaking event and many very close to home,” Hurst said, there will come a time when an incident “is going to be so great in its size and scope and scale that it will tax the available resources (locally), just like the Marshall Fire did.”
“It’s an unsettling thought,” said Hurst, a Castle Rock resident. “It’s a thought that I have to live with, that one day this fire could happen here.”
In an interview with Colorado Community Media, Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon outlined a six-point plan for addressing wildfires.
“In Douglas County, your board of county commissioners take wildfires very seriously,” Laydon said. “This last year we attempted to amplify our efforts through the wildfire initiative.”
The plan’s steps include: partnerships with stakeholders such as fire officials; public outreach; yearly forest maintenance; assessing traffic; planning for future forest management projects and legislation; and funding opportunities through the state and federal governments.
Lone Tree Chief of Police Kirk Wilson said his community has planned for a Marshall Fire or worst-case scenario “the best we can.”
“The problem with (the Marshall Fire) and the reason that’s difficult to plan for is you literally had, one, no notice at all. It happened so rapidly. The wind conditions were horrific that day, the dryness of the state was horrific that day,” he said.
County agencies compare disaster response plans “and make sure we are mirroring each other,” Wilson said, and police and fire departments are ready to aid neighboring communities if necessary.
“I have no doubt in a moment’s notice we would have as many resources as we could possibly handle,” Wilson said.
As local first responders pointed out, Douglas County is no stranger to large wildland incidents or fires that threatened suburban areas.
The Chatridge 2 Fire of 2020 was roughly half the size of the Marshall Fire but summoned a full-throttle response as it sped through the BackCountry, encroaching on Highlands Ranch and damaging some backyards.
“We had probably more aerial helicopters and airplanes, slurry bombers, on that fire than anyone had ever seen close to the Denver metro area before,” Hurst said.
Air support can’t help in wind conditions like those seen during the Marshall Fire, he said. But for those situations where it can help, Douglas County has contracts with both air tankers and helicopter companies.
The county has two types of contracts with these companies, one that provides an option for emergency response any time of year — if the vendor has resources available, the county pays afterwards — and one called exclusive use, which guarantees support for a portion of the year. For the past four years, the county has funded exclusive-use helicopter support for at least 90 days per year, Alexander said.
County agencies began planning for worst-case scenarios dating back to the 2003 Cherokee Ranch Fire, Hurst said, which grew to 1,000 acres and triggered evacuations in Castle Pines North.
“For Douglas County as a whole, that was a really, really big wake-up call and it came on the heels of the Hayman Fire,” Hurst said, referencing the 2002 wildfire that was Colorado’s largest in history until the Pine Gulch and Cameron Peak fires of the 2020 season.
Douglas County leaders have a resounding answer for how residents can begin preparing for such an event close to home: Sign up for CodeRED emergency notifications.
Using phone numbers, email and text messages, the “reverse 911” system alerts those signed up about any emergencies in their area. It also provides instructions on what to do next. Those interested in signing up can do so at Douglas.co.us/CodeRED. Hurst stressed CodeRED is an opt-in system, and people must sign up for alerts.
Cocha Heyden with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said it’s a good idea to sign up every member of the household, including teenagers with cell phones.
Another way the OEM helps prepare communities is by conducting evacuation drills where folks can practice leaving their homes, getting into their car and driving an evacuation route. Those events are often planned through homeowner associations and other community groups and are usually announced in local newsletters, Johnson said.
Johnson also encourages folks in their own time to become familiar with their local streets and communities.
“Please be familiar with and know your subdivisions, know the ways in and out,” he said. “When smoke is in the air it’s not the time to think ‘Where am I and where am I going?’”
Hurst agreed that knowing multiple exits from a community is paramount. The typical route residents take could be inaccessible because of the incident, he said.
“Maybe visibility has dropped to almost nighttime because of how thick the smoke is. Maybe there are things on fire around you. We are talking an absolutely terrifying situation,” he said. “The best thing to do, as uncomfortable as it is, is to consider what that looks like and to have a plan.”
Douglas County first responders also had a word of caution for parents: Don’t forget to make plans for what to do if children are home alone when an incident unfolds.
“A lot of times parents are at work,” Hurst said, adding that roads in and out of neighborhoods might be closed off by law enforcement. People can always call 911 to aid children, but families should plan for who else, such as a neighbor, would be available to help children evacuate if needed.
A press release from the county encouraged residents to also make a “family evacuation plan” including a family reunification point outside of the neighborhood.
The county also asks residents to consider how they could fireproof their own properties. The goal is to minimize the likelihood the home will ignite during a wildfire and to reduce or eliminate nearby fuel, according to the Colorado State Forest Service.
Hurst gave examples: Are there dried pine needles in the gutters? Dead leaves piled on the porch?
“Think about hot embers raining down on your house,” he said.
Hurst said urging people to be prepared is not meant to incite fear, but rather to bring perspective to potential incidents. Proper planning, he said, helps alleviate panic if a disaster does occur.
“We just want people to have that education and understand that it’s possible,” he said. “And disasters aren’t designed in a way that we put them on the calendar and say, ‘Today’s the day.’”
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