The Marshall Fire: A Year and a Half Later
Written By: Mike Rhodes | Date Published: June 29, 2023 | Date Edited: July 5, 2023
On December 30, 2021 one of the most destructive fires in Colorado history tore through the northwest suburbs of Denver, leaving communities devastated and looking for answers to how something so unpredictable could happen.
Roughly a year and a half later, many are still in the process of rebuilding - highlighting the need for preparation on all fronts as the climate continues to change at a more rapid rate.
A year and a half ago we were driving back home from Wisconsin along I-76 towards Denver. On the horizon we could see a black cloud engulfing the sky.
“Surely it was a thunderstorm of some kind,” we thought. As we drew nearer, this idea became less plausible, but what could this enormous cloud be? It wasn’t until we were engulfed with smoke and 100+ mph wind on the east side of Denver that we began to understand the true nature of the situation.
We were able to make it back to our house, just below the path of the fire when we turned on the news. A fire had started by Rocky Flats and been blown eastwards towards the communities of Louisville and Superior by winds amplified by funnel effect in Eldorado Canyon State Park.
This effect is well known - it’s why the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has a campus to test wind turbines directly in the path of the winds.
What was not anticipated was the historically dry six months preceding the fire. Less rain had fallen in the Denver area during that time than in the Sahara Desert.
It was truly a perfect storm that had the fingerprints of climate change written all over it. More specifically, ever increasing extremes in temperature and precipitation.
We watched on television as reporters broadcast the destruction of our community in real time.
As night fell, we could see the orange glow of fire on the horizon mixed with the countless emergency lights of the first responders.
The fires, fed by the bone-dry grasslands and 100+ mph sustained winds, blew into neighborhoods and shopping centers with zero mercy.
Entire neighborhoods were gone in an instant - sometimes leaving the ones across the street relatively untouched.
When all was said and done, 1,000+ homes were destroyed and one life was lost.
The cruel twist of the knife being that a major snow storm system came less than 24 hours after the fires had been contained - and about a week after Christmas.
The community was reeling. How could this happen here? We are all familiar with wildfires in the mountains, but fires with this level of destruction were uncommon on the plains.
One of my favorite quotes is from an American treasure: Mr. Rodgers. “When bad things happen, look for the helpers,” his mom would tell him.
When climate change went from hypothetical to reality, the helpers came in droves.
An entire department store was filled with donations from the community - to the point that we had to turn people away.
However, it cannot be ignored that this tragedy occurred in one of the more affluent parts of the country and the world. This does not diminish or invalidate the suffering that occurred - but it does beg the question: what happens if/when something like this happens in a less fortunate community?
A year and a half later the communities of Superior and Louisville are rebounding, but there are many who are still not in their houses. This can occur for a variety of reasons: insurance, permits, new regulations, etc.
What is clear is this: natural disasters like this will happen again, and likely with greater frequency and intensity. Perhaps not in the exact same spot, but similar stories will be told across the country and world. Acknowledging this reality and preparing for it on every front (e.g., building homes and buildings to withstand weather extremes, having clear evacuation plans, simplified permitting, etc.) are vital to adapting to climate change.
I’ve found that taking action towards solving the climate crisis is the best way to help quell anxieties around climate change.
We all have abilities to make change in the world using our unique talents and experiences.