Boulder County officials should be prepared to send alerts to all cellphones in the path of fast-moving fires and proactively develop a radio plan for emergency agencies to communicate, according to an after-action report that found numerous shortcomings in communications during the disastrous Marshall fire.
The recommendations were among several in the report — published online Sunday — to address communication obstacles that plagued officials’ response to the most destructive wildfire in state history. Flames had already reached some neighborhoods as evacuation orders were issued, the report stated, as previously documented by The Colorado Sun.
During the Marshall fire, which burned more than 1,000 homes and businesses on Dec. 30, communicating using radios was “nearly impossible” as multiple police and fire agencies used different channels and information was easily missed. Calls and texts failed as cell towers became overloaded, according to the report, compiled by Mike Chard, Boulder County’s disaster management director.
The report recommended the Boulder County Communications Center and Louisville police and fire develop a radio plan to communicate with each other and outside agencies during large-scale emergencies. The report also called for a traffic and evacuation plan, and for implementing policies and training for rapidly evolving emergencies.
Evacuation planning meetings should be held to train local municipal emergency managers on the process of issuing alerts and warnings to cellphones for evacuations, and managers should create a plan to send out multilingual messaging, the report advised.
While the county had the technology to alert all cellphone users that they were in danger, the system had not been set up at the time of the fire, The Sun previously reported.
The Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management offered to send an emergency alert to cellphones on the county’s behalf, but Chard declined, saying the county was not prepared to accept the help as implementing a new system would be “impractical” for staff members who were already juggling several tasks amid a crisis.
The report advised officials to create an agreement and process to accept the division’s help to send alerts in the future.
Sirens in the area were not programmed to go off during a wildfire, the report said, which recommended first responders review the siren’s activation process.
Despite the communications problems, experts said a massive surge in law enforcement officials going door-to-door to evacuate residents, as well as the low number of tourists in the area, likely saved lives.
Two people died in the fire and nearly 1,100 homes, worth collectively more than $513 million, were destroyed.
Robert Sharpe, whose remains were found in his home on Marshall Road, not far from where the fire sparked, was notified to leave and seek safety, the report stated. Superior resident Nadine Turnbull, 91, was also told to leave before flames engulfed her home.
More than 300 law enforcement officers knocked on doors in unincorporated Boulder County, Louisville and Superior to notify residents about the fire and to evacuate. After the fire jumped six lanes of U.S. 36 — in three separate locations — officials redirected traffic.
Additional staffing, including fire dispatchers and supervisors, working at the 911 center helped in the county’s response, including the evacuation of Avista hospital and several long-term care facilities, the report stated.
In about three to four hours, 37,500 people evacuated, according to the report, which called the effort “unprecedented.”
“They made up for the lack of automatic notification with something that was even better. They had people going around,” said Tom Cova, a University of Utah geography professor who specializes in emergency management, wildfire warnings and evacuation systems. Cova, who did not contribute to the after-action report, called the 300 or so responders who helped with evacuations a “little army.”
“This drives home the point that this is not a rural evacuation at all. It’s on the edge of a really urban area,” compared to other fires in the wildland-urban interface, he said in an interview after reviewing the report per The Sun’s request.
Strong winds and drought in the months preceding the fire set the stage for its devastating outcome, the report found. The six-month period between July 1 and Dec. 21 was the second warmest and driest in Denver’s recorded history, and the 13th driest in Boulder’s history, the report said.
“It takes just the right combination of meteorological parameters, including stability, wind shear, and wind magnitude, to create a powerful and damaging windstorm like this one,” the report said. “Grasses, while typically dry this time of year, were exceptionally dry as very little snow had occurred through the entire fall season.”
An earlier shift from firefighting to mass evacuations could have provided homeowners more time to seek safety, according to the report, but firefighters were uncertain which area to evacuate first as the fire quickly spread and firefighters lacked information on the extent of each arm of the fire.
“The fire was moving faster than some of the evaluation orders could be developed and launched,” the report stated.
Firefighters battled “near-zero” visibility as dust, smoke and debris swirled through the air in wind gusts up to 100 mph. First responders feared running into parked vehicles and some firefighters struggled to stand up straight or open car doors, the report stated.
Initial crews described the scene as “chaotic” and it soon became clear that the fire would be nearly impossible to control as the wind fueled the fire and carried embers.
“There was nothing that could be done to stop it even with additional resources,” the report stated.
County officials were criticized for not sending out an Amber-style cellphone alert warning residents to flee the fast-moving fire. Chard said the county had begun setting up the federal system but hadn’t finished before the Marshall fire broke out.
That work was finished in April, according to the report, and Amber-style evacuation alerts were sent to residents after a fire broke out near the foothills near the Table Mesa neighborhood. Amber-style alerts ping every cellphone around designated cell towers, meaning it can notify more people than necessary.
The technology hasn’t been perfect, Chard said, adding that it tends to send alerts over a wider area than officials intended, a problem he calls “over-alerting.”
“Every time we use it it goes all over the place. That’s just going to be the new world,” Chard said. It can impact traffic around fire zones during evacuations.
“We’re seeing as much traffic going towards the fire as people leaving… Because people are getting over-alerted and thinking ‘I got to get in my house,’” he said. “That’s an activity that we’re seeing around these mass notifications.”
Absent the Amber-style alerts, the county sent out evacuation orders during the Marshall fire using a commercial system called Everbridge, that reached only those with landlines or pre-registered accounts.
Fewer than 5,000 of the 24,289 phone calls, texts and emails sent by county officials Dec. 30 were marked received, according to data previously obtained by The Sun. The vast majority of the alerts — 80% — were marked unconfirmed, meaning that it’s unknown if they were received or read.
Needing to sketch out where to send the alerts during the fast-moving fire took crucial time, according to early accounts.
In 2019, after seeing the Carr fire scorch nearly 230,000 acres in northern California, a group of 17 mountain fire chiefs and the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office pre-drew evacuation zones in the western part of the county, so alerts could be sent with just a few clicks on a computer. They are now pre-drawing evacuation zones for the rest of the county, the report said.
Chard said officials have been meeting about that for about the past three months, looking at software to help draw the zones and increase the “preparedness work around that.”
“I can see where that would be a big deal with this one because of how fast everything happened,” said Cova, the University of Utah professor. “They don’t have time to sit down on a fire like this and design ideal polygons. So what they were saying was we would prefer to predefine them so that we can just issue orders.”
Responders also appeared to have struggled to communicate with each other.
First responders in mountainous areas tend to use VHF radios which can better permeate rocky, uneven terrain. Other agencies in Boulder County use an 800 MHz system, which is preferred in flat areas because it extends further and allows officials from different agencies to communicate seamlessly.
But the systems cannot communicate with each other, a “significant” issue during the fire, Sunshine Fire Protection District Fire Chief Michael Schmitt said.
“There wasn’t any way to mitigate that at the time,” he said. “The only way would have been for there to have been a stash of radios that are handed out.”
Lefthand Fire Protection District Chief Chris O’Brien said several districts have come together to apply for a federal grant to get 800 MHz radios, which are expensive, particularly for small mountain departments in Boulder County that are often staffed with volunteers. If they are awarded the grant, rural districts will pay 5% of the radios’ costs while the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay 95%.
“I do know of instances where agencies from the western (side of the county) had gone in to assist on the Marshall fire did not have the correct radio infrastructure but still found workarounds to be able to communicate, either working closely with a task force leader or another engine that had that capacity,” O’Brien said. “They did find workarounds on that. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not an ideal situation.”
A group of mountain fire chiefs recommended to the county that “they need to support a countywide cache of 800 MHz radios, because there are agencies that just kind of cannot afford to buy them,” he said. Those could be loaned out.
Cell towers also failed during the fire response.
O’Brien said cell use is “always tough” because communications tend to jam up “whenever there’s any sort of a large-scale emergency.”
“Both Verizon and AT&T have special programs for first responders which give us priority on cellular communications but even still it’s unreliable. If you burn up the tower, you burn up the tower,” he said.
Some responders might not have been in the priority-access programs, which are meant to prevent first responders’ cell communications from being throttled during an emergency.
One recommendation included in the after-action report for the city of Louisville was to “Contact First Net or Verizon to acquire capability for first responders to have priority communications.”
Details on the cause of the fire were not included in the report. The investigation into the origin and cause of the fire is ongoing, according to the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 3:52 p.m. on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, to correct the spelling of Nadine Turnbull’s name.