Axios Denver Thought Bubble

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December 31, 2021

Welcome to a special Axios Denver Thought Bubble, our snap dispatch that breaks down the events that shape our community.

  • Apologies for interrupting the news vacation we promised, but we want to bring you the latest on the Marshall Fire.

Smart Brevity™ count: 635 words — a 2.5-minute read.

1 big thing: The latest on Colorado's urban firestorm

An Arvada firefighter walks back to the firetruck as a fast moving wildfire swept through the area in a Louisville neighborhood, destroying cars and homes. Photo: Marc Piscotty/Getty Images
An Arvada firefighter walks back to the firetruck as a fast moving wildfire swept through a Louisville neighborhood, destroying cars and homes. Photo: Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

The wind-fueled flames of the Marshall Fire dashed from house to house yesterday, torching entire neighborhoods and skipping others, indiscriminately destroying lives and capping a difficult year in Colorado.

The latest: The orange flames that lit up the skies around Boulder County left behind a black-and-white scene Friday, as snow fell on charred homes and piles of gray ash.

  • Emergency officials are beginning the grim task of assessing the damage as evacuated residents are eager to know whether their homes are still standing.

Two thousand homes are in the burn area, and Gov. Jared Polis said that nearly 1,000 homes and businesses were decimated in Superior, Louisville and other Denver and Boulder suburbs. Local authorities put the estimate closer to 500.

  • The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but emergency officials reported downed power lines in the area where the blaze began.
  • Displaced residents are still not allowed to return to their homes because of dangerous conditions and smoldering flames in some areas, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said at a briefing this morning.
  • Xcel Energy is working to restore power to 15,000 customers in the area, and Louisville and Superior residents are advised to boil water.
  • There are no known casualties and only a few people suffered burns — an outcome the sheriff called "miraculous."

What they're saying: "It feels like we've experienced enough loss and tragedy these last two years," Polis said.

  • "This is our community, and to watch it burn so quickly, so unexpectedly, is something that I think we are all just struggling to believe and understand."

Why it matters: The Marshall Fire is expected to rank as the most destructive blaze in state history in terms of homes destroyed, and the fact that it struck in dense suburbs in late December is remarkable.

Between the lines: The conditions that helped make the fire so devastating bear the imprint of climate change, including a record dry and unusually warm six months, Axios' Andrew Freedman and Ben Geman write.

  • This dry period was preceded by a wet spring, which prompted grasses to grow, only to see them dry out, adding to the combustible situation.

What you can do: Several nonprofits are collecting money and supplies to help those who suffered losses in the fire, including the Community Foundation Boulder County, the American Red Cross Colorado Chapter and the Salvation Army.

  • Coloradans who can offer shelter to displaced residents can sign up online to host through the Airbnb Open Homes Program, according to the Boulder Office of Emergency Management.

Of note: Boulder's emergency operation center has urged people to donate online, and not call the facility, to help keep the phone lines clear.

The big picture: The fire concludes a horrible holiday week in the Denver area, as violence and the coronavirus interrupted the season of hope.

  • A suspected gunman killed five people and shot a police officer Monday in an attack that began in Denver and ended in downtown Lakewood.
  • Colorado set a new pandemic record Wednesday for single-day COVID-19 cases, fueled by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, and the governor activated the National Guard to help with testing.

What's next: One pressing question moving forward is where the people whose homes were destroyed will live.

  • Affordable housing was already hard to come by in Boulder County.
  • Emergency shelters are open, and the state has asked federal authorities for help with temporary housing, but the long-term outlook remains uncertain.

The impact: A neighbor helped Doris and Richard Channel evacuate Thursday with their half-poodle mix, Trina. Doris has lived in Louisville her entire 85 years.

  • "I've never, ever seen anything like this," she told the Colorado Sun. "I just want to go home to my bed. I just hope it's still there."

Go deeper … and 11 must-see photos

We're back Monday with more news. Have a safe and happy New Year.