Daylight, Holiday Timing at Play in 'Miraculous Evacuation' During Fire: Colorado Officials

The perfect combination of factors helped what could have been a highly deadly wildfire that ripped through two Denver suburbs to only leave two people unaccounted for.

The Boulder County fire began around 11 a.m. on December 30, destroying nearly 1,000 homes and causing about 35,000 people to evacuate the area.

With the blaze being less common for this time of winter and Colorado's public alert system not reaching many people living in the area, experts are even more surprised that the fire didn't cause more harm.

However, factors such as the fire occurring during the daytime and over the holidays proved to be helpful, as more people were at home and had access to a vehicle to evacuate in. Beyond that, those factors also helped families in the sense that parents weren't scrambling to find their children because students were home for the holiday break, said director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder Lori Peek.

Thomas Cova, a University of Utah professor who researches emergency management, called it a "miraculous evacuation."

"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."

Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones, who himself had to flee his home during the fire, called police and fire department evacuation efforts "phenomenal" and commended the community for its response.

"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."

Colorado, wildfire
Although over 35,000 people had to evacuate their homes in a Boulder County wildfire, only two are currently unaccounted for. Above, members of the Stephens family sift through the remains of their home destroyed by wildfires January 4, 2022, in Superior, Colorado. David Zalubowski/AP Photo

Colorado Governor 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 percent to 40 percent, 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 December 30, when schools were closed and many people were either home from work or working from home due to the pandemic.

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.

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.

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 saved homes. I have no doubt about it," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Boulder Fire Schools Reopen Students Wildfire Colorado
Only two people are unaccounted for after the massive Boulder County wildfire, an accomplishment officials are saying are partly because of the holiday timing. Above, Charley Ferrera, 8, walks through what remains of her grandfather's house in a neighborhood decimated by the Marshall Fire on January 2, 2022, in Louisville, Colorado. Michael Ciaglo/Stringer