Homes and vehicles destroyed by Marshall Fire in a neighborhood near Harper Lake in Louisville on Friday morning, Dec. 31, 2021, in Colo. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

As few as 1 in 5 people who were sent warnings to flee the fast-moving Marshall fire confirmed they received them, newly released figures show. 

In all, fewer than 5,000 of the 24,289 phone calls, texts and emails that went out Dec. 30 were marked as having been received during the emergency, according to new data from the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. The vast majority, 80%, went unconfirmed, meaning it’s unknown if someone heard or read any part of the warnings. 

The response data — released Tuesday at the request of The Colorado Sun — raised new questions about the effectiveness of Boulder County’s emergency alerts, which are meant to provide enough warning to allow people to escape danger.

As few as 1 in 10 of the 50,000 people who were in the path of the flames – 4,637 – actually received personal alerts through the county’s emergency notification system, the new data shows. Residents confirmed receipt of calls, for instance, by pressing 1 on their phone. The data did not show if someone received the message without confirming receipt. 

Boulder County authorities have acknowledged the warnings didn’t reach everyone but said they tried to notify residents in other ways, including on social media and by sending deputies and firefighters door to door. 

“Everyone needs to be getting an evacuation order – that’s for sure. And everyone didn’t, and we’re fixing that and it’s going to be better,” said Boulder County’s disaster management director Mike Chard, who expects to have a new system in place by April capable of sending alerts to cellphones in a certain area, in addition to warnings sent via landlines and email to people who signed up to receive alerts from the county.  

“​​It will be better and it will be more efficient,” he said, “and it will help people be alerted and warned and evacuated on future disasters, for sure.” 

By the time flames that were pushed by winds gusting to 100 mph finally died down Dec. 31, nearly 1,100 homes had burned and the towns of Louisville and Superior were both evacuated. Two people are believed to have died in the fire.

A couple (who declined to give their names) watch the Marshal Fire from the vista view overlooking Superior, CO, along Colorado Highway 128 at Ridge Parkway. Tuesday, December 30, 2021. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Things were going crazy at that time”

In Boulder County, the emergency management office responds to evacuations once they are ordered, like by coordinating shelters. Alerts are sent through the sheriff’s office.

The Sun previously reported that the county had received a license to use wireless emergency alerts in late 2019, but soon became focused on responding to the pandemic and other disasters so it never finished setting up the system. 

On Dec. 30, the county’s emergency alerts were sent through a private service called Everbridge, which sends messages to all residents with landlines and to those who signed up to receive alerts on other devices, such as cellphones or by email. It’s unclear how many people signed up for the Everbridge alerts. Registration rates for such commercial systems are often low because residents must opt in, experts in emergency management said. 

Two state agencies can send alerts to any or all Colorado counties, a FEMA spokesperson said. 

The Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management offered to do so during the Marshall fire, but Chard declined, saying the county was not prepared to accept the help. Staffing levels at the time made it “impractical” to “integrate the state into the evacuation process,” the county sheriff’s office said in written responses to questions. 

The offer came in a brief conversation two to three hours into the fire, after about seven of the county’s nine Everbridge alerts had been sent out urging residents to flee or prepare to flee, Chard said. At that point, he had been told evacuations were ongoing and was trying to set up shelters, an emergency operations center and open the Boulder County Fairgrounds for animals. 

“Things were going so crazy at that time, we were right in the middle of all this, and it was like ‘I don’t know what I can do with that right now,’” he said. 

The sun is obscured by smoke from the Marshall Fire, as seen from from McCaslin Boulvard, Superior, CO. Tuesday, December 30, 2021. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

With two members of his four-person office out the day of the fire, dropping everything to understand the new alert system would mean “a lot of other things aren’t getting done,” he said.

It would have taken “time to try to figure out a way to create an interface and get a process to do that when I got people … working super hard, fully committed,” Chard said. “You just can’t insert a new process on people and (a new) functionality right in crisis and think that that’s going to come out better.” 

“It’s going to make things probably worse,” he added. 

Chard filled out the application for the wireless alert system years ago, after noticing a steep drop-off in landline use. Ideally the wireless alerts and Everbridge alerts would have been going out as first responders also went door to door. “I wish we would have had it for the fire,” he said. “This would have been great to have in the arsenal.”

Micki Trost, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said the agency has sent wireless emergency alerts for other jurisdictions if there’s a statewide incident or if a city or county requests it. 

“During the East Troublesome fire we helped in pushing out emergency alerts for evacuations there. Just last week, we pushed out emergency alerts for Jackson County due to winter storms,” she said. 

Fifty-one of Colorado’s 64 counties, including Boulder County, have been approved to use the wireless alert system on their own. 

In Boulder County, one dispatcher and one dispatch supervisor were responsible for fielding information from first responders before drafting, designing and sending out more than 24,000 notifications to contacts registered in the Everbrige system, the county said.

Given the limitations of emergency alert systems and the swift spread of the Marshall fire, it’s a miracle more people didn’t die in the state’s most destructive and costly wildfire, public safety and emergency communication experts say. 

“The public safety efforts were herculean, but in that kind of incident with those winds, it was just overwhelming to numerous public safety resources to the community,” Hal Grieb, Jefferson County’s emergency management director said.

Smoke from the Marshall fire rises above homes in the Rock Creek neighborhood,looking north on McCaslin Boulevard, beyond Coalton Road, toward Andrew Drive in Superior, Colorado, on Dec. 30, 2021. The Marshall fire ripped through the north part of town and then moved on to Louisville. As of Jan. 1, 2022, the fire had consumed 6,200 acres and destroyed 991 structures. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Some attribute the low number of fatalities to neighbors warning neighbors and the small number of tourists in the area, as well as first responders who went door-to-door to notify people to leave.

“I heard those stories of neighbors helping neighbors, neighbors knocking on doors, calling, texting, all those things,” Grieb said. “And that’s all part of what emergency notification should be grounded in.”

Getting residents to opt in for automated alerts remains a challenge for public safety agencies, Grieb said. In Jefferson County, less than 20% of residents are registered to receive alerts through its service called CodeRED, he said.

“Technology is just a tool. So knowing the pros and cons of each tool is critical to trying to be as successful as you can be in such a fast paced and large-scale emergency,” Grieb said. 

He recommended using a layered approach to keeping residents informed of emergencies that could include wireless alerts when appropriate, first responders knocking on doors and encouraging residents to purchase a NOAA weather radio that broadcasts emergency alerts.

“It’s never a one-size-fits-all,” Grieb said. “It’s a one-size-may-fit-some and that’s where the struggle is.” 

Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, who managed the Cameron Peak fire in his county in 2020 and the Kruger Rock fire near Estes Park in November, said he can’t imagine the volume of calls and radio traffic 911 dispatchers were fielding while trying to send out alerts. 

“There’s no system that’s perfect for that,” he said.

The new data from the Marshall fire comes as officials acknowledge that the evacuation process could have been smoother.

A burning home is reflected in the front door of another home at the near Trail Ridge Road and Washington Avenue, in Louisville, CO, on Dec. 30, 2021. Driven by 110 mph winds, the Marshall fire ripped consumed 6,200 acres and destroyed 991 buildings in Louisville, Superior and areas of unincorporated Boulder County. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Was it an orderly evacuation where everybody had a lot of time and preparation to do that? I’m not hearing that, but based on the speed of the fire moving and the weather conditions that we had, and everything else, I don’t consider it a failure,” Dave Beebe, fire chief for Mountain View Fire Protection, said. His firefighters were first to respond to reports of a fire at Colorado 93 and Marshall Road. “We moved thousands of people in a very, very short time. I mean, we evacuated a whole hospital. So you know, it’s a matter of perception.” 

The state Division of Fire Prevention and Control asked a team of municipal, state and federal experts to review the Marshall fire and learn more about the fire’s behavior, coordination between agencies, communication interoperability and mobilization of resources. 

The analysis, which began this week, is expected to take several months to complete. The team is expected to issue a public report. 

Beebe said several of his firefighters will be interviewed, along with dispatch personnel. Each agency will also conduct its own internal evaluation of what worked and what didn’t in its response, he said. 

“Nobody is looking to turn the page and move on,” Beebe said. “We’re looking to learn as much as we can from it, as fire service emergency responders, to be more prepared regardless of where it occurs because it can – and probably will – happen along the Front Range in the future.

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023.

Olivia Prentzel covers breaking news and a wide range of other important issues impacting Coloradans for The Colorado Sun, where she has been a staff writer since 2021. At The Sun, she has covered wildfires, criminal justice, the environment,...