Remains found, yet most people escaped the Colorado fire

It is a remarkably low number of possible victims, according to disaster experts and authorities, all the more so because a public warning system did not reach everyone and the winter fire caught many people on guard.

Several factors broke in favor of the evacuees: The fire came in daylight and on holidays, where many were at home in predominantly affluent neighborhoods, where most residents have easy access to vehicles and could escape because the region has an extensive road network.

It could also have helped that the area has experienced emergency personnel who have been working on other recent forest fires, major floods in 2013 and a supermarket mass shooting in March last year.

“In terms of the big picture, it’s a truly miraculous evacuation,” said Thomas Cova, a professor at the University of Utah who researches emergency management and evacuation of wildfires. “So close to a populated area … spot fires everywhere and 100 mph (160 km / h) wind – I think it’s incredible that only two people are missing.”

The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday that investigators looking for one of the two found partial human remains in an area near the suspected origin of the fire. The remains of the adult were found in the Marshall area south of Boulder, the office said.

Sheriff Joe Pelle said earlier that officials were looking for a man in the area. Sheriff’s and forensic officials continued to work on the scene.

Authorities are conducting a separate search for a woman who is reported missing in the hard-hit Superior community.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis said the fire, which destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and damaged hundreds, stands as a warning: “When you get a pre-evacuation or evacuation notice, jump to it.”

Officials have not said exactly how many people were contacted through the alarm system, which sends a recorded alarm or text to phones. The warning no doubt saved lives, but some residents affected by the fire complained in the wake that they never received it.

Neil Noble, who fled his home in Louisville on Thursday, said the first thing he heard about the fire was from a FedEx courier driver knocking on his door to deliver a package. After embarking on an errand and seeing steady traffic while the smoke flag grew, he decided to leave with his three teenage children.

“I’ve talked to dozens of people, even those whose houses burned down and no one seems to have received any kind of notification,” he said.

Alarms went out to people with landline phones because their numbers are automatically signed up for the system, and those with cell phones and VoIP phones who signed up online, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said. He also noted that people with landlines may not have received the evacuation order because precisely these lines had been burned by the fire.

According to Everbridge, the company that created the notification system, more than half of the households in the country are completely dependent on mobile phones and do not have landlines.

Noble, who does not have a landline phone and did not know he had to sign up for the alarms on his cell phone, said it would be an uphill battle to get tens of thousands of people to manually sign up for the service, causing unnecessary risk.

“We were lucky enough, it happened in the daytime, you know. You could see the flag getting worse and worse,” he said. “At night, it would have been deadly with this lack of communication.”

Previous fires have shown that subscription rates for a forest fire alarm system can be as low as 30% to 40%, Cova said. But not all households need to receive an emergency alert for it to be effective, as people will quickly share the news with their neighbors and friends, he said.

The fire in Boulder County ignited shortly after noon. 11 on December 30, when schools were closed and many people were either home from work or work from home due to the pandemic.

It avoided a scenario where anxious parents tried to find their children instead of fleeing immediately, said Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Most people in the suburbs that burned were likely to have access to vehicles, in contrast to other disasters like Hurricane Katrina, where a quarter of New Orleans’ population had no personal transportation, said Peek, who lives and works just miles from it. burned area. .

And while the emergency call system did not reach everyone, residents of the Boulder area have seen enough fires along the Front Range communities at the foot of the Rocky Mountains to respond quickly when smoke appears on the horizon, she said.

Sharpening this awareness of danger is a growing understanding that climate change is making forest fires worse, even as subdivisions are crawling deeper into fire-prone areas.

“I think one of the shifts that will follow after this fire is that people will start thinking, ‘Am I in danger? I thought I was safe when I lived in a suburban area,’ ” she said. “I do not think it is a bad thing to question it. “Anything that can help people become more prepared for the dangers we face is a good thing.”

Cova credited local officials for not hesitating to order evacuation once the fire began to spread.

“If we had records for evacuation speeds, this would be in the top 10,” he said. “I do not think anyone lost the ball.”

He contrasted the Colorado response with the California campfire of 2018, which killed 85 people and destroyed the city of Paradise. The evacuation order to Paradise came after the fire was already in the city and there was only one remaining route out of the community.

Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones, who was forced from his home in Louisville, credited all law enforcement and firefighters who gathered around the area from across the state to help with the evacuation.

“It was phenomenal. It saved the home. I have no doubt about that,” he said.

But he also pointed to an important factor that cannot be quantified – ordinary decency.

“There are a few things I realized as I drove away from our home,” he said. “One was the patience and grace of all the people who were evacuated. People were friendly, polite and let people in because they were all going out. And that’s part of the reason I think so many people did well to get out. ”


Brown reported from Billings, Montana.


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