AP

Remains found, yet most people escaped Colorado fire

Jan 5, 2022, 5:26 PM | Updated: Jan 6, 2022, 4:43 pm
A Colorado National Guard vehicle blocks an entrance to a neighborhood left in rubble by wildfires,...
A Colorado National Guard vehicle blocks an entrance to a neighborhood left in rubble by wildfires, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Louisville, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER (AP) — A late-season wildfire pushed by hurricane-force winds tore through two densely populated Denver suburbs and seemed destined to leave a trail of deaths. Yet, only two people were unaccounted for out of some 35,000 forced from their homes.

It’s a remarkably low number of possible casualties, according to disaster experts and authorities, all the more so because a public alert system did not reach everyone and the wintertime blaze caught many people off-guard.

Several factors broke in favor of the evacuees: The blaze came during daylight and over the holidays when many were at home in mostly affluent neighborhoods where most residents have easy access to vehicles and could flee because the region has an extensive road network.

It also might have helped that the area has seasoned emergency management personnel who have worked other recent wildfires, major floods in 2013 and a supermarket mass shooting last March.

“In terms of the big picture it’s a really miraculous evacuation,“ said Thomas Cova, a University of Utah professor who researches emergency management and wildfire evacuations. “So close to a populated areas … spot fires everywhere and 100 mph (160 kph) winds — I think it’s incredible that’s there’s only two people 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 blaze. The adult’s remains were found in the Marshall area south of Boulder, the office said.

Sheriff Joe Pelle previously said officials were looking for a man in the area. Sheriff’s and coroner’s officials continued to work the scene.

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

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said the fire that destroyed almost 1,000 homes and damaged hundreds more stands as a warning: “When you get a pre-evac or evacuation notice, hop to it.”

Officials have not said exactly how many people were contacted through the emergency system, which sends a recorded alert or text to phones. The alert undoubtedly saved lives, but some residents affected by the fire complained in the aftermath that they never received it.

Neil Noble, who fled his Louisville home Thursday, said the first he heard of the fire was from a FedEx delivery driver who knocked on his door to drop off a package. After setting out for an errand and seeing gridlocked traffic as the smoke plume grew, he decided to leave with his three teenage children.

“I’ve talked to dozens of people, even those whose houses burned down, and nobody seems to have received any kind of notification,” he said.

Alerts went out to people with landlines because their numbers are automatically enrolled in the system and those with cellphones and VoIP phones who enrolled online, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said. He also noted that people with landlines might not have received the evacuation order because those very lines had been burned by the fire.

According to Everbridge, the company that created the notification system, more than half of households in the country rely entirely on cellphones and don’t have landlines.

Noble, who does not have a landline and didn’t know he had to sign up for the alerts on his cellphone, 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 fortunate enough it happened in the daytime, you know. You could see the plume getting worse and worse,” he said. “At night this would have been deadly with this lack of communication.”

Past fires have shown that wildfire alert system subscription rates can be as low as 30% to 40%, Cova said. But not every household needs to receive an emergency alert for it to be effective, since people will quickly share the news with their neighbors and friends, he said.

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

That avoided a scenario in which anxious parents scrambled to find their children rather than flee immediately, said Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Most people in the suburban neighborhoods that burned likely had access to vehicles, a contrast with other disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, where a quarter of New Orleans’ population had no personal transportation, said Peek, who lives and works just miles from the burned area.

And while the emergency notification system didn’t reach everyone, Boulder-area residents have seen enough fires along the Front Range communities at the foot of the Rocky Mountains to react quickly when smoke appears on the horizon, she said.

Sharpening that awareness of danger is a growing understanding that climate change is making wildfires worse even as subdivisions creep deeper into fire-prone areas.

“I think one of the shifts that is going to follow this fire is that people are going to start thinking, ‘Am I at risk? I thought I was safe, living in a suburban area,’” she said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to question that. Anything that can help people to get more prepared for the hazards we face is a good thing.”

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

“If we had evacuation speed records, this would be up there in the top 10,” he said. “I don’t think anybody dropped the ball.”

He contrasted the Colorado response with California’s 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. The evacuation order for Paradise came after the fire already was in town and there was only one remaining route out of the community.

Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones, who was forced from his Louisville home, credited all of the law enforcement agencies and fire departments that converged on the area from across the state to help with the evacuation.

“It was phenomenal. It saved homes. I have no doubt about it,” he said.

But he also pointed to an important factor that can’t be quantified — common decency.

“There are a couple of things I realized when I was driving away from our home,” he said. “One was the patience and grace of all the people getting evacuated. People were kind, polite, letting people in because they were all getting out. And that’s part of the reason I think so many people did well getting out.”Investigators looking for one of two people missing after a destructive Colorado wildfire have found partial human remains in an area near the suspected origin of the blaze. 

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Today’s Top Stories

AP

Microsoft is cutting 10,000 workers, almost 5% of its workforce, in response to "macroeconomic cond...
MATT O'BRIEN, Associated Press

Job cuts in tech sector spread, Microsoft lays off 10,000

Microsoft said in a regulatory filing Wednesday that had just notified employees of the layoffs, some of which begin immediately.
14 days ago
exxon mobil sign pictured...
SETH BORENSTEIN and CATHY BUSSEWITZ Associated Press

Study: Exxon Mobil accurately predicted warming since 1970s

Exxon said its understanding of climate change evolved over the years and that critics are misunderstanding its earlier research.
20 days ago
FILE - Protesters, supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, stand on the roof of the...
The Associated Press

Brazil and Jan. 6 in US: Parallel attacks, but not identical

RIO DE JANIERO, Brazil — Enraged protesters broke into government buildings that are the very symbol of their country’s democracy. Driven by conspiracy theories about their candidate’s loss in the last election, they smashed windows, sifted through the desks of lawmakers and trashed the highest offices in the land in a rampage that lasted hours […]
22 days ago
President Joe Biden pictured...
ZEKE MILLER AP White House Correspondent

DOJ reviewing potentially classified docs at Biden center

Special counsel to the president Richard Sauber said “a small number of documents with classified markings” were discovered at the offices of the Penn Biden Center.
23 days ago
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 06: A poster advertising the launch of Prince Harry's memoir "Spare" is s...
Jill Lawless Associated Press

Prince Harry says explosive book is a bid to ‘own my story’

Prince Harry defended his decision to publish a memoir that lays bare rifts inside Britain’s royal family.
23 days ago
utah capitol, a new bill heading to lawmakers will affect the utah sex offender registry...
HANNAH SCHOENBAUM Associated Press/Report for America

States target transgender health care in first bills of 2023

After a record flow of anti-transgender legislation last year, Republican state lawmakers this year are zeroing in on questions of bodily autonomy.
25 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Banner with Cervical Cancer Awareness Realistic Ribbon...
Intermountain Health

Five Common Causes of Cervical Cancer – and What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month and cancer experts at Intermountain Health are working to educate women about cervical cancer, the tests that can warn women about potential cancer, and the importance of vaccination.
Kid holding a cisco fish at winterfest...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Get Ready for Fun at the 2023 Bear Lake Monster Winterfest

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual weekend event jam-packed full of fun activities the whole family can enjoy. This year the event will be held from January 27-29 at the Utah Bear Lake State Park Marina and Sunrise Resort and Event Center in Garden City, Utah. 
happy friends with sparklers at christmas dinner...
Macey's

15 Easy Christmas Dinner Ideas

We’ve scoured the web for you and narrowed down a few of our favorite Christmas dinner ideas to make your planning easy. Choose from the dishes we’ve highlighted to plan your meal or start brainstorming your own meal plan a couple of weeks before to make sure you have time to shop and prepare.
Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...
Macey's

5 Game Day Snacks for the Whole Family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The Best Tools for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Workplace Success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
Remains found, yet most people escaped Colorado fire