Some residents during the Marshall Fire say they received little notice — or no notice at all — to flee their homes in the face of an inferno fueled by 100 mile per hour wind gusts, The Colorado Sun reported.
In an emergency, multiple different alert systems could come into play, and that often isn’t common knowledge, said Eric Hurst, a spokesperson for South Metro Fire Rescue.
“In the emergency management community, anecdotally, the number is one-third of residents across the country sign up for emergency alerts, and two-thirds don’t,” Hurst said.
There is an alert system that the public doesn’t have to sign up for: the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, which is operated under FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
That system can send messages to an area based on location, including through mobile phones.
But “it is not perfect, and some will not get the alert, and some will get it that are not in the alert area,” said Deputy John Bartmann, a spokesperson for the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office. “This was the issue we had when we sent the boil-water alert to a section of the City of Englewood earlier (last) year.”
It can be difficult to craft alerts in a way that doesn’t cause confusion when working with notifications such as the IPAWS messages, Hurst said. If people receive the message in a larger area than intended, roads could become jammed.
“If we give the wrong direction, the worst thing is: Not only are you in a traffic jam that’s gridlocked, but now you’re in a traffic jam that’s surrounded by fire. Now more lives are at risk,” Hurst added.
Local officials want residents to sign up to receive notifications. In Arapahoe County, the “ArapAlert” program uses a system called CodeRed to allow public safety agencies to warn the public of emergencies.
If you do not have a traditional landline phone — or if you do but still would like to receive a text, email, or cellphone call in addition to the call on your landline or Comcast phone — residents should register for the free ArapAlert service. Visit this site to opt in.
The public should note that the City of Aurora is not part of that system. Those living and working in Aurora can click here to opt in.
Residents living in other cities or counties can see here to find information on the emergency notification system in your area.
Hurst suggests double checking that citizens are signed up, particularly for those who have recent relocated to a new home.
Other ways to stay informed of emergencies include finding the local fire agency on the PulsePoint smartphone application.
“So (at) pretty much the same time firefighters are being notified about a fire,” you can hear about it via a push notification on your phone, Hurst said. It also allows residents to click a button and listen to the radio traffic that firefighters are hearing as it occurs, Hurst said.
Another step is to follow a local fire agency on Twitter. Personnel are often updating about emergencies on that platform, Hurst noted.
As the new year approached, Coloradans watched the unfolding of a type of tragedy they aren't used to seeing: a wildfire tear through miles and miles of suburban homes not far from the middle of the Denver metro area.
Record-setting blazes in Colorado keep coming, and rural areas aren't the only ones that need to prepare for fires, said Eric Hurst, a spokesperson for South Metro Fire Rescue.
“Just because you don't live next to the foothills doesn't mean there's not a risk of wildfire in your community,” Hurst said.
The Marshall fire in Boulder County destroyed 1,084 homes and damaged another 149, The Colorado Sun reported. The Dec. 30 fire put tens of thousands of people under evacuation orders and led to one confirmed death and another person still missing as of Jan. 7.
Flames raced across roughly 6,000 acres — about 9 square miles — leaving a large stretch of the suburbs between Denver and Boulder devastated.
On the other side of Denver, for decades, South Metro Fire Rescue has had its eye on wildfires that can threaten suburban areas. Fire officials use the term “wildland urban interface” to refer to areas where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or plant life that can fuel fires.
“Especially since the late 1990s and early 2000s, South Metro Fire began really focusing on risk of wildland interface fires,” Hurst said. He added: “We've had a lot of close calls in our jurisdiction.”
In Centennial, those close calls can be “greenbelt” fires involving open space and parks, Hurst said. Many Centennial neighborhoods are divided from each other by spaces with vegetation, such as grass or other plants.
When people light fireworks in those types of spaces or start recreational campfires, it's not uncommon for authorities to see fires occur, according to Hurst.
But wildfire is more of a threat in parts of Douglas and Jefferson counties, where South Metro Fire also has jurisdiction. The “fuels” for a fire are different in Douglas County, for example, where firefighters see oak brush and ponderosa pine trees and the landscape tends to be more rolling, Hurst said.
The Castle Pines area evacuated in 2003 during the Cherokee Ranch fire that burned about 1,200 acres and threatened houses in the Castle Pines North area. More recently, the Chatridge 2 fire near Highlands Ranch spread to 500 acres and forced an evacuation of nearby residents in 2020.
Wildfires in general are becoming more intense, virtually by the year: All 20 of the 20 largest wildfires in Colorado have occurred since 2001, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control's website. Nine of the top 20 have occurred within the last handful of years — in 2018 and 2020 — and that includes four of the top five.
The Marshall fire, which spread amid fierce winds and dry conditions, was Colorado's most destructive wildfire in terms of the number of homes destroyed, the Sun reported. The 2013 Black Forest fire north of Colorado Springs was previously the most destructive wildfire in Colorado. That fire destroyed 489 homes, the Sun reported.
“Overall, the trend seems to be telling us that it's drier and we're having bigger fires,” Hurst said.
If a home borders or sits with a mile or two of a natural area, it's at risk of damage from a wildfire, according to a wildfire safety guide prepared in part by the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association. The type of “wildland interface” may look different from area to area, Hurst said. In Centennial and unincorporated Arapahoe County, neighborhoods can back up to Cherry Creek State Park, for example.
“The interface areas aren't necessarily created equally in their (fire) fuel model, but the prairie (and) plains areas are at a high threat as well,” Hurst said.
What's important to remember is that it's difficult to have a big fire in South Metro Fire's area without it impacting homes or communities in some way, Hurst said.
“When we have a fire grow over an acre, we immediately have concerns that neighborhoods are going to be threatened,” Hurst added.
South Metro Fire Rescue helped fight the Marshall fire, deploying seven engines, three fire chiefs and a safety officer on the first day. On day 2, the agency replenished the aid with five engines and a fire chief.
Out of the spotlight, though, the fire agency works to increase fire safety before tragedies happen, employing a team of risk-reduction specialists.
“For decades, risk-reduction specialists have been working with homeowners' associations and local homeowners on fire preparedness,” Hurst said.
The team provides wildfire assessments and helps communities create defensible areas around their neighborhoods and around their homes. Defensible space is the zone between a structure and the wildland area that can act as a buffer to slow or halt the spread of a wildfire to the structure, according to the fire safety guide.
If a fire like the Marshall fire happens in the south metro area, that might help save some property, Hurst said.
The public can email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about fire preparedness.
South Metro Fire Rescue's coverage area includes all or part of 12 municipalities: Aurora, Bow Mar, Castle Pines, Centennial, Cherry Hills Village, Columbine Valley, Foxfield, Greenwood Village, Lakewood, Littleton, Lone Tree and Parker. South Metro Fire also covers unincorporated portions of Arapahoe, Jefferson and Douglas counties.
Reporter Jessica Gibbs contributed to this story.
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