Building Back Smarter in Boulder County
2021 was a year in a string of years of unprecedented weather-related events: mega tornados, record-shattering heat domes, and ever-expanding forest fires. But even in a year like this, the Marshall Fire stands out as something new: a grass fire that turned into an urban firestorm--destroying entire suburban communities on Colorado’s front range between Denver and Boulder.
A combination of atypical weather conditions has been blamed for setting the stage for this fire: an unusually wet spring, nurturing lots of vegetation, followed by record-shattering drought conditions—this post from Yale Climate Connections has all the gory details. The buildup of tinder-dry vegetation was then fanned by winds gusting to over 100 miles per hour.
30 seconds to evacuate
Interior Designer and green building leader Annette Stelmack shared her personal experiences of the fire:
"Our beloved Colorado was devastated by the recent Marshall Fire. We are in Louisville and are reeling from the largest fire in Colorado’s history that struck December 30 with 100–110 mph winds literally ripping through our communities with multiple fire tornados. We had our beautiful grandchildren staying with us and evacuated quickly when the adjacent town of Superior posted mandatory evacuations.
Nearly 1,000 homes were completely lost, and countless friends and neighbors were impacted by this horrific tragedy with their homes obliterated within minutes, only giving them 30 seconds to evacuate. Their stories are truly heart-wrenching.
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We are incredibly blessed; our block and home were spared. The fire came within 100 yards, where four patio homes burned to the ground within a couple of hours. Our hearts are broken and physically hurt for our communities. It is incomprehensible, devastating, and our grief is wide and deep. We are back in our home with immense gratitude and naturally survivor’s guilt."
Very few people are known to have died in the fire, thanks to rapid evacuations. But thousands are now homeless, and rebuilding will take time. The immediate need is to help the victims find temporary housing and ensure their other basic needs can be met.
Guidance on rebuilding
There is an opportunity and an imperative to ensure that rebuilding is both quick and responsible. How can we replace what was lost with something that’s both more adaptable to a changing climate and doesn’t make things even worse with more climate-changing emissions?
For some good general principles of fire-safe design, see this post from the Resilient Design Institute. The Marshall Fire will no doubt be studied for more lessons in how to reduce the risks in this particular setting.
Boulder-based Sustainability and Resilience Consultant Valerie Walsh notes that Homeowner Association rules and the already-stretched local construction market will add challenges to any rebuilding process:
“Regarding a quick rebuilding process, this area was already in high demand for homebuilding contractors. Supply shortages and lumber prices challenged even the projects and developments both planned and underway. That means rebuilding will likely take longer and cost more. And unfortunately, even temporary housing is challenged for our region pre-firestorm. We have high demand with low supply for both rentals and homes and condos for sale.”
“This tragedy has crystallized my focus. All of my spare time will be given to local volunteer efforts to rebuild our communities. I’m reaching out to you to ask if you have resources you can direct me to, to guide rebuilding efforts responsibly with resilience, health, and sustainability as part of the planning guidelines and goals.”
Help Boulder County rebuild right
What resources are you aware of that can help make rebuilding efforts equitable, sustainable and resilient? Are you interested in helping? Share your ideas and suggestions here. Maybe the recovery will be manageable and the outcomes better than what we had before, for all involved.
Malin, N. (2022, January 7). Building Back Smarter in Boulder County. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/blog/building-back-smarter-boulder-county