After a rough year, new wildfire warnings have Boulder, Colo., on edge
Boulder is again under a red flag warning for extreme wildfire danger as powerful winds like those that fanned a destructive blaze in December return to the drought stricken region.
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Boulder, Colo., is again under a red flag warning for extreme wildfire danger due to powerful winds. Winds like these pushed a rare December wildfire into a suburb, destroying more than a thousand homes in a single day. Since then, there have been several more close calls, as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The Marshall Fire last winter, fanned by 100-mile-an-hour winds, raced into the suburbs east of Boulder, burning from home to home, igniting a whole shopping center, a hotel. Three and a half months later, drive up the Boulder Turnpike, and it's eerie seeing all that's left of that hotel - a four-story-high elevator shaft amidst rubble.
I'm watching a huge dozer scoop up twisted, burnt debris in a cul-de-sac just in front of me - wrought iron, charred patio furniture, burnt cars.
LONNI PEARCE: When I drive through our neighborhood and it looks like a war zone, I can't help but just be still shocked.
SIEGLER: Lonni Pearce lost everything. The University of Colorado professor was under-insured. It's a common problem after disasters. So her family isn't sure whether they'll rebuild. And the recent return of fierce winds stirs anxiety.
PEARCE: It just felt like, OK, that - can this really be happening again?
SIEGLER: And all it takes is a 50-mile-an-hour wind gust like this to topple a power line or send a spark from a passing truck into the dry brush. It's hard to remember a day here recently when there wasn't a dreaded red flag warning for extreme wildfire danger. Arzelia Walker has lived in South Boulder for 40 years.
ARZELIA WALKER: You sort of start to feel anxious, you know? And the fact that the Marshall Fire was in the dead of winter is terrifying.
SIEGLER: Like a lot of this college town of 100,000 people at the doorstep of the Rockies, her neighborhood abuts open space.
WALKER: Our big winds tend to come in the winter, but - so that's not been a problem so much in the past 'cause there's been snow.
SIEGLER: But climate change has made winters warmer and drier. Just a few weeks ago, Walker had to evacuate during the NCAR Fire - NCAR for the National Center for Atmospheric Research it ironically threatened. It's one of Boulder's premier climate research labs. Firefighters got a handle on it before it got bigger than 200 acres, though.
BRIAN OLIVER: Definitely a scare. You know, you can see the neighborhood just a couple hundred yards away from the fire line, the black edge there.
SIEGLER: Brian Oliver is Boulder's wildland fire chief. Standing on a mesa with a 360-degree view of the city and its striking flat iron rock formations. The red flag warnings have him stationing fire engines in strategic places around town. Heavy air tankers are on call in nearby Fort Collins if it's safe to fly in this wind.
OLIVER: There's definitely a feeling of - man, it's - I'm not sure the word to use. On edge is a good way to put it. There's tension because we haven't gotten a break.
SIEGLER: Fires, floods, the pandemic, a mass shooting a year ago at the grocery store down the hill - Oliver says it's been relentless. When the NCAR Fire ignited, evacuation alerts went out to some 19,000 people, more than probably needed it, and traffic was bottlenecked. But Oliver says he'd rather be overly cautious than have people trapped behind.
OLIVER: I equate that to trying to fight a hurricane, right? We don't mobilize a force to go turn a hurricane around, right? We get everybody out of the way, and then we try to come back in and clean up after, if we can.
SIEGLER: Now, these aren't the wildfires burning into newly built communities out in the woods that often grab headlines. Boulder capped growth and sprawl some 40 years ago. But climate change, Oliver says, is bringing these fires into the city.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How's it going?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good. Yourself?
SIEGLER: Federal leaders, including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, toured Boulder County this week trying to sound that alarm. One of their stops was the still-charred hillsides of the Cal-Wood Fire in a canyon north of town. In 2020 in late October, it burned 10,000 acres and destroyed homes.
JOE NEGUSE: It is clear that fire seasons no longer exist here in Colorado. We have fire years.
SIEGLER: The local congressman, Joe Neguse, touted $130 million in new fire funding in the infrastructure law. It'll go to prevention and hiring more fire crews in the Western states. Now, it won't help people in crisis here right now, but Lonni Pearce, whose home burned down last December, found the news encouraging.
PEARCE: It just feels like this is a little bit of a tipping point. Like, OK, things are really real now. And we need to, not just as individuals but as communities, start to do things differently.
SIEGLER: From changing landscaping to building code, she says, Westerners have to live with fire now, even in cities.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boulder, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.