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Catastrophic wildfire rips through Boulder, Colo., suburbs

Photo: Smoke over the town of Superior, Colo., on Dec. 30. Credit: Tristantech/Wikimedia Commons

In a matter of hours on Dec. 30, a wildfire tore through suburbs between Denver and Boulder, destroying hundreds of homes, businesses, apartment complexes and other structures. Fueled by extremely high winds and a serious drought in the state, the fire became the most destructive in Colorado history in one afternoon.

The fire burned 6,000 acres in less than 24 hours. According to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, it consumed “football fields in seconds.” Officials estimate that over 1,000 structures have been destroyed, and thousands of people are affected or displaced. Miraculously, no deaths and only a few injuries have been reported due to the fire, but these numbers could rise. 

The rapid spread of the fire, called the Marshall Fire, was due to winds over 100 miles per hour in the suburban areas of Louisville, Superior, and other municipalities in Boulder County. These winds, coupled with extremely dry conditions, turned a grass fire caused by downed power lines into a whirlwind firestorm that destroyed twice as many structures as the next-most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. Eight of the 10 most destructive fires in the state have occurred since 2010.

The state scrambled to keep up, with firefighters and police going door-to-door to stores and homes in Boulder County to enforce emergency evacuation orders that had been issued moments before. Louisville and Superior both issued a water boil advisory as they changed water distribution while fighting the fire. Power outages due to downed lines affected areas throughout Boulder County. On the highway between Boulder and Denver, evacuating cars turned to go the wrong way on the road to try to outrun the quickly spreading fire.

As the fire rapidly spread, the Avista Adventist Hospital in Louisville was forced to evacuate all patients, including those in the ICU. Boulder County currently has the highest number of COVID cases that it has had throughout the entire pandemic. COVID positive evacuees were all told to go to a single church east of the fire area. 

Just a day after the fires, up to six inches of snow are expected in Boulder and Denver. The mountains west of the urban areas could receive up to a few feet of snow. 

Before this upcoming storm, only a single snowfall has had any accumulation in the Denver metro area — unprecedented in the city. The snowpack in the mountains is also alarmingly low, and the lack of precipitation means that extremely high fire danger has persisted across the state. Later and later first snowfalls and less snow accumulation in the mountains are the result of climate change and have fueled exponentially worse fire seasons in the U.S. West in the last decade. 

The sudden, catastrophic destruction of the Marshall Fire has shocked the state of Colorado. It is far past the end of the fire season, and the scale and speed of the devastation are hard to comprehend. There are bright spots — no deaths have been reported, and the coming snowstorms mean much-needed precipitation for Denver, Boulder and the Colorado mountain snowpack. The fire is the harsh reality of climate change on full display — but instead of watching the flames, we should fight for a better world than the one we have now.

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