Blog Post

Building Back Smarter in Boulder County

The Marshall Fire brought tragedy to Boulder County at the end of 2021. Can something positive grow out of the ashes?

A burning house

One of the nearly 1,000 homes that were destroyed by the Marshall Fire on December 30, 2021.

© Jeremy Sparig/Colorado Sun/ZUMA Press
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.

The Marshall Fire as seen from Acreage by Stem Cider in Lafayette, Colorado.

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.”

Walsh, Stelmack, and others are networking and seeking collaborators. Walsh noted that USGBC Colorado and the Colorado Green Building Guild are potential local conveners. In Stelmack’s words: 

“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.


Published January 7, 2022

Malin, N. (2022, January 7). Building Back Smarter in Boulder County. Retrieved from

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January 11, 2022 - 2:16 am

Whatever became of Greensburg, KS or post-Katrina reconstruction lessons where hundreds of new housing units were needed? There must be some compendium of sources to draw upon even if they were dealing with different climate threats. The Geos Neighborhood is 10 miles due south of where the Marshall Fire burned, so if you wanted a template for a net zero neighborhood they exist locally. 

I'm struck by the coordination needed to rebuild entire subdivisions from the foundation up. I presume all of the existing land development, e.g., roads and infrastructure are sacrosanct and will remain as-is or rebuilt as they were. So, what is on the table for these families? And are they able to pool resources and partner with a production home builder with assistance from FEMA or is each individual home owner filing a separate claim and bidding against their neighbor for scarce supplies and labor?

To put it another way, what is the problem we need our industry's help with regarding the Marshall Fire's rebuilding effort?  

January 10, 2022 - 3:28 pm

I am a plumbing heating contractor and developer. Also LEED AP HOMES and a GreenHome Institute's GreenHome Associate certified. We offered a design build in Boulder County for the DOE's Solar Decathlon competition to be Partner Project. Simply there are long delays for that project there. This disaster hastens my design implementation greatly. A "Green Magic Homes" manufactured earth sheltered "Hobbit Hole" passive solar home with only 90% concrete and steel needed to build it. One and/or 2 story with no joists needed! Enclosing an offsite prebuilt shipping container assembly. This container makes mechanical, electrical, plumbing assemblies and closets are an interior finish "cabinet package". A loft and/or a second floor if desired sits on this structure as a composite deck assembly. Stairways are steel bolt in place. This Earth Sheltered design eliminates ALL soffit, facia, eaves and roofing materials which allowed the wind driven embers to enter structures and burn from within! Even the tightest HERS homes had the weakest links: Vented attics and eaves!! Not to mention can be built out in 1 month. Less if I retrofit an existing foundation. This is a green and risk/durability solution to many existing and newly discovered design elements at one time.

January 10, 2022 - 2:14 pm

External metal shutters on windows are another building feature that can really help with fire-resistance and protecting a home in the event of a fire. Sprinkler systems are also a great fire-proofing feature - even better if they are coupled with a rainwater capture system (ensuring that rainwater tanks are non-flammable and fire-resistant). Hempcrete is also an amazing fire-proof building material that offers high insulation values and other benefits, but it is much more niche than most building materials and therefore may unfortunately not be relevant for quick and affordable rebuilding in Boulder County.