The first phone alert warning Boulder County residents to flee the Marshall fire was sent at least 42 minutes after flames broke out — at most to 215 people.
By then, at least one structure had burned and the wind-driven fire was on its way toward consuming more than 1,000 homes and businesses, becoming the most destructive in state history.
Another 24,074 contacts received evacuation orders or warnings in the next three hours, with more than 7,000 in the Louisville area not receiving an alert until just before 3 p.m., nearly four hours after the Marshall fire began its terrifying run. In all, nearly 50,000 were under evacuation orders covering the towns of Superior and Louisville.
Details about the emergency notifications sent Dec. 30 were released as authorities faced questions from residents who say they received little notice — or no notice at all — to flee their homes in the face of an inferno fueled by 100 mph wind gusts.
Boulder County’s Office of Emergency Management on Thursday said while the county has the technology necessary to alert all cellphone users in the area that they could be in danger, the system has not been set up and wasn’t functioning during the fire.
“I had no notice. I lost my cat. I lost my house of over 20 years. Why? Who’s responsible? Why did we not … get a reverse call, with 100 mph winds and a burning fire 4 miles from my house?” a woman who identified herself as Judylynn Schmidt asked during a virtual Colorado Division of Insurance town hall Tuesday night. Public property records show her home was in the Sagamore neighborhood, which was leveled by the fire.
“I just can’t believe why they dropped the ball on all of us,” she said.
Boulder County has an emergency mass notification system called Everbridge. Landlines are automatically loaded into the system on a quarterly basis, but residents must create an account to get notifications on their cellphones or by email. Contacts includes account holders and landline phone numbers.
In an emergency, responders in the field relay information about what a notification should say — for example, whether to climb to higher ground or leave the area — and what the “geographical footprint” of the alert should be.
The process of sending out the alerts can take longer depending on the complexity of the mapping needed, according to a release from the county’s Office of Emergency Management. Public safety officials also announce mandatory evacuations on foot or by car.
4,800 contacts ordered to leave 4 hours after the fire started
The Marshall fire’s location and wind speed and direction “were unique to the emergency” requiring the shape of that notification footprint to be “digitally created on-the-fly,” the release said.
The first evacuation order was sent 11:47 a.m. on Dec. 30, to 215 contacts. A recorded message warned recipients to leave the area near where the fire is believed to have started, near Colorado 93 and Marshall Road.
The next order went out at 12:15 p.m. to 2,588 contacts to the southeast, in an area running east of Cherryvale Road and along Marshall Road into Original Superior and the Sagamore neighborhood. “Proceed north and east of this area,” the message advised.
At 12:46 p.m., 254 contacts were sent warnings to flee their homes due to wildland fire threatening Superior. This notice took in the commercial district east of McCaslin Boulevard and south of U.S. 36.
Near 12:50 p.m. 4,173 contacts in the Rock Creek neighborhoods southeast of Original Superior were warned to prepare for an evacuation. “Leave if you feel unsafe evacuate now,” the notice said.
Between 1:08 p.m. and 1:25 p.m. mandatory evacuations were ordered for most neighborhoods in Louisville south of South Boulder Road, including the Enclave, Paragon Estates, Spanish Hills, Harper Lake and Coal Creek Ranch neighborhoods where homes burned. Messages were sent to more than 10,000 contacts.
But an order was not issued until 2:51 p.m. for an area east of McCaslin Boulevard and north of West Cherry Street that includes the Louisville Recreation Center and a fire station, as well as a neighborhood south of Harper Lake that was destroyed, according to a log of messages shared by Boulder OEM. Another more than 2,200 contacts were told to prepare to evacuate just before 3 p.m.
Plans for new R-911 system shelved for COVID response
The county’s Office of Disaster Management is working to implement a system in the “near-future” that would send emergency alerts to all cell phones that are based in the path of danger, known as wireless emergency alerts, and plans to implement the system in 2022.
The office secured a license for the system from the state in late 2019 and began implementing it, but then was diverted to the COVID response, the office said.
Unlike Everbridge, which bases its alerts on address, wireless emergency alerts can notify people in a much larger geographical area through systems set by cell phone providers.
Boulder’s Office of Emergency Management cited numerous drawbacks of the wireless emergency alerts Thursday.
While Everbridge allows law enforcement and fire officials to precisely target who receives messages, wireless emergency alerts can warn residents in a much larger area than intended and therefore, can cause roads to become congested as large numbers of people attempt to flee, the office said.
Only about 34% of smartphones have the enhancement that “allows geographical certainty of their location to 1/10 of a mile,” according to a FCC guide cited by the emergency management office.
Marshall Fire coverage
The alerts can also increase calls to the 911 center, taxing the resources of dispatchers, the office said.
“Our goal is to alert or warn residents quickly, over a large area and do so without causing negative secondary effects that interfere with the orderly and effective movements of dense populations away from hazardous conditions,” the office said.
The county’s emergency notification system must have the flexibility to help those living in the plains and mountains areas, which have poor cellular coverage, the office said.
Boulder County’s 2021-26 Hazard Mitigation Plan said warning systems like reverse 911 calls, sirens and an emergency paging system for county staff are generally the responsibility of the sheriff’s office.
Other areas, such as Denver, already rely on wireless emergency alerts to notify residents of emergency situations.
Malfunctions in evacuation warning systems led to disaster during the 2012 Lower North Fork fire in the mountains of Jefferson County, in which three people died. Evacuation warnings went to the wrong phone numbers and began three hours after residents began calling 911 to report seeing smoke.
Earlier Thursday, Louisville officials also acknowledged problems with the evacuation and said that the police department and others would be reviewing them.
“Reverse 911 and evacuation — we had some failures there. I am very concerned about this and I assure you that we will be looking into this,” city manager Jeffrey Durbin said, in meetings with residents of various Louisville neighborhoods. “This is something that we need to do better and we will be having an after-action debrief to really dive into where those failures happened and why they did. That’s something that is unacceptable to me.”
He added he didn’t know why tornado sirens had not gone off, and would “add that to my list of looking into.”
Under normal circumstances, evacuation orders may be staggered, to prevent the entire city from searching for an exit at once.
Police Chief David Hayes confirmed some people were not notified of the evacuation and said at a Jan. 4 city council meeting that he was concerned by how long evacuations took.
Chihoko Cullens received no warning, no reverse-911 call before she had to grab her three children and evacuate their house in the Sagamore neighborhood on the edge of Superior, around 12:10 p.m. on Dec. 30. Her home, the first address mentioned in emergency dispatch recordings reviewed by The Colorado Sun as catching fire, was engulfed by flames 20 minutes later.
Christina Eisert, who also lived in the Sagamore neighborhood, said she never received an evacuation order or reverse 911 call.
She remembered seeing dozens of Costco shoppers stream from the parking lot and said that was her “biggest tipoff” that she should flee.
“There was literally no warning. The shoppers in Costco got way more warning and seeing all of the vehicles stream out of the shopping center was actually my biggest tipoff that I should retrieve the dogs and flee,” she said. “Of course by then, fire was falling on the house.”
A reverse 911 call would have made “a huge difference,” said Eisert, who left the neighborhood “in the nick of time” with her two boys and two dogs after seeing flakes of flaming ash the size of dinner plates fall above her home.
“I honestly wasn’t sure that we’d make it,” she said. She pulled her car off the road and drove through a park with her hand pressed down on the horn, to avoid hitting anyone that she couldn’t see in the thick smoke. “I was terrified that the entire parking jam was going to come under flame.”
By the time her landlord called to relay the evacuation order, Eisert said she imagined her entire neighborhood was engulfed in flames.
The official tally of residential structures destroyed in Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County is currently 1,084, with another 149 damaged. The value of the residential damage and destruction is estimated at more than $513 million. An additional 37 commercial structures were damaged or destroyed.
Investigators initially reported three people were missing in the Marshall fire, but one of them, a man from Superior, was found safe. Partial human remains were also found in the 5900 block of Marshall Road, not far from where the fire sparked, authorities said Wednesday, and the search continued for a second person missing in Superior.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Colorado Sun staff writer Thy Vo contributed to this report.
CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, to clarify that emergency alerts sent through Boulder County’s Everbridge system went to people who signed up to receive them as well as to any landlines already on file with the county. For that reason, numbers provided by the county may include multiple alerts sent to the same person.