In this post, I describe my experience discovering the Marshall Fire, determining whether it threatened my area, evacuating, and then explain what lessons about emergency preparedness I learned.
On December 30, 2021, I was working from home as I often do on the final work day of a week. The morning was normal, and since high wind warnings are commonplace in Colorado, I was not super concerned with the issuing of a high wind warning. I've lived through dozens of such events in my life. They are normal in Colorado during the winter when a storm is coming in, especially during La Niña. I had no idea that a little less than half way through my work day, everything would change with incredible speed.
The marshall fire was the most destructive fire in Colorado's history in terms of number of homes destroyed, number of evacuations issued, etc. At about 11:00 the fire was sparked near the intersections of marshall Rd. and Colo 93. This intersection is probably known to most people in the Denver Metro/Boulder area, and is home to many common hiking areas, and is physically near where many coloradans hike and recreate. Near this area is the marshall mesa, a common hiking area that's set on a coal bed. You can literally walk up there and pick up coal, and there are signs warning about the danger of an underground coal fire. So ... yeah, when I learned about the source location I was concerned. Within minutes, the fire had spread out of control and could not be stopped. Winds from nearby mountain canyons of near 115MPH were zipping down from the mountains, and quickly took a small fire and made it incredibly unthinkably dangerous. There are 1000+ residential structures that were entirely destroyed, and close to 150 that were damaged in some way 1. This happened in less than 8 hours. In the course of 4 hours, a normal day turned into an apocalyptic seeming fire spanning two cities, multiple parts of boulder county, and threatened much more. The size of the area that was evacuated is still baffling for me to try and comprehend. It takes 10 or so minutes, on a good day, to drive from one end of the fire to the other, and probably 20 to drive the entire evacuation zone from end to end. Even though the acreage of this fire seems small at only 6000 acres, it needs to be noted that huge pieces of this are literally cities. It's peoples houses in subdivision's with grass and trees and your typical suburbia and shopping centers that were completely destroyed. There are entire neighborhoods that simply were wiped off the map in a matter of 15 minutes.
Even though I lived a ways away, I am still less than 10 miles from this location, and east, so the fire was concerning. I was at work as the fire started, and didn't notice anything because 85-100 MPH winds were hitting my house, so I had my windows closed, thus I didn't smell smoke yet. At about Noon, a colleague asked our team chat why there was smoke in the boulder county area and if something was happening. Realizing that any fire at all in this kind of dry wind could spell disaster, I immediately checked the social feeds of various government agencies I follow (colorado office of emergency management, Boulder office of emergency management, National weather service Boulder office, and many more). I keep a list I use to get updates and have my phone set to notify me of the most critical organizations. Realizing that a rapidly developing situation like this would change faster than I could get updates from social media, I also started thinking through disaster plans I had made so I could fall on them to get updates as I learned more. I have an television antenna, and a battery operated hand held radio I can use, and I was actually in the process of developing more emergency preparedness plans. There are several open fields near my apartment, so I wanted to immediately know if there was fire in one of my fields, and whether I needed to evacuate immediately. After learning from my social media lists that the fires were near Cherryvale Rd. and Marshall Rd, I knew that this was a good safe distance away, and that very high value infrastructure sat between me and the fire, so I was not in immediate( danger. However, realizing that winds in excess of 100MPH had been occurring, something just didn't feel right. I have been in Colorado my whole life, and if there is one thing I do not want to see, its extremely dry wind and fire mixed, and me being down wind from said fire, especially if that fire is burning on a mesa with coal dust flying around with the embers, and between me and that area is a ton of similar areas with flammable soil. I do not have evidence to suggest that the coal had anything to do with this fire or its severity, nor do I have evidence to suggest that coal dust or anything related to the local sedimentary geology had anything to do with the fire, but it was always on my mind through the whole thing. I took some time to break from work so I could better assess the situation, and decide whether I should start planning an evacuation.
Evacuating while blind
Since most maps are inaccessible I am very fortunate that I enjoy geography a lot, and keep extensive mental maps in my head of how things around me are laid out. If I am given major cross streets within 20 mi of me, I can usually lay out those streets and picture how they are oriented in relationship to me, and lay them out over hills and near lakes, etc. After reading more reports of fire activity and learning that evacuations had been placed for the entire town of Superior, I immediately decided to ensure I was prepared to evacuate. I was far enough north and east of the fires that I suspected my apartment wouldn't burn down or be at danger. However, I am blind and cannot drive, and when you work in software engineering on software that processes billions of items, you very quickly learn the realization that unlikely events happen all the time and if something bad can occur, eventually, it will occur. I am not fooling around with fires on this windy of a day. 5 minutes can be the difference between death and surviving with a fire situation like this. Knowing where superior is in relation to me and the relative size that was uncomforting. There is open grass land mixed with lots and lots of housing between me and there. There are also railroad tracks that could be used by a fire as a direct corridor to me. I had a backpack packed for a weekend ski trip and decided that most likely, since my apartment would not be at danger I would just try to leave early for my trip. I turned my weekend bag into my ready bag because it was the most practical thing to do in this non urgent situation. At about the time I was converting my weekend backpack into the stuff I would want to take with to keep up to date with a situation like this, I got calls from my family. We decided that it was best to get out now and I would meet them for our weekend trip. Roads were very heavily congested near me so actually getting my family to pick me up took almost an hour. I know quite a few people in the area, so in the event of an evacuation actually occurring I could have easily called one of them. You aren't walking out of an evacuation zone unless you leave well before any orders are given, in most likelihood. Although the gridlock was bad and I maybe could have walked and gotten someones attention, even attempting to cross a street blind during 100MPH winds is just a death wish. You literally can't hear a car if it were a couple feet away with that much noise. Just be prepared for not being able to walk out of one of these situations. In the unlikely situation I was living somewhere with no local friends/neighbors who could help, I'd probably be better off calling 911 and calmly informing them of my situation so they could arrange something. My emergency plan for such calls is to give the operator my exact address, inform them I'm blind, give eye and hair color, and the type of bag I have. I may put an easily identifiable tag on my ready bag going forward so that any emergency personnel trying to spot me could more easily do so. I would also make sure they know my name, and then I would keep attempting to ask neighbors if I could hitch a ride. I didn't end up needing to take any of these steps. The irony of this situation is most of the friends who I have in the area were away from town for holidays, so they didn't need to evacuate. I have work friends who I could have had swing by to pick me up while on their evac root, if I had needed to as well. However, I ended up getting out about 10 minutes before the evacuation orders were given for my specific area, so I never tried reaching out to friends/neighbors or calling the sherif to ask for help.
Aftermath and thoughts
It took me a few days to fully appreciate just how much stuff burned. I still don't know if I fully comprehend just how much of my community was destroyed, because I keep looking at reports as they come out, or find out about another lost structure, and its as if I just can't wrap my head around the scale. It's weird because as a software engineer, I regularly throw numbers like several hundred million queries per day, or work with numbers of query's per second in the thousand, but even in my day job, I always just feel tiny when I have to think about the actual numbers of real users data I work with, and the numbers of real users hitting my stuff every single second. This is the same feeling. I can visualize the number of structures, or the lay out where things burned on a mental map, but actually comprehending the big picture and saying oh, that's the scale, and accepting that scale is impressive. I don't have words for understanding something analytically but not emotionally, but I literally deal with it every day at work. I was extremely lucky that my house and neighborhood ended up being far enough away that they didn't get burned at all, but it was a close thing. I can probably walk to the edge of effected areas in about an hour.
postmortems, preparations, and following plans
I guess I've taken the idea of blameless postmortems and preparing for inevitable crisis's seriously as a software engineer working on systems that will eventually unfortunately fail and will have effects on millions when they do. I never took the time to appreciate that I had done this, but I mentally had emergency plans that I have created and I immediately started referencing those after I learned a disaster was occurring. I effectively created a mental playbook for various types of emergencies with mental checklists of things to do. Also, literally as soon as I evacuated, I started going into postmortem mode, and effectively mentally started summarizing the incident, noting what went write, what went wrong, where I got lucky, where I didn't get lucky, and created lists of action items that needed to be addressed for future emergencies. These are all things we do as professional engineers after a major incident. We literally do this as soon as the emergency is resolved, while everything is still fresh, and it is expected that bugs will be filed for every action item that is addressed, and most of the time the bugs are treated as very serious actions we must address NOW. I've even seen a manager on a team that was in a completely different part of the company drill someone on what the time frame and plans were to resolve the lessons learned in a postmortem. The pressure from management to get a postmortem out the door and written non paper before critical details are lost is incredible. The key take away's that I learned from my experience are as follows:
- In an emergency situation, even the most clearheaded individual may forget key details of an emergency plan if it is not written down. I realized that I had to think harder than I should have about where to find key information, and my mental checklists failed. I had previously made plans to have a battery operated radio that I could use to get access to data if power was out. I knew where the radio was, it was stocked with working batteries, I had spare batteries, I simply forgot, in the moment, that I had that radio, even though I specifically made plans to use it in an emergency. I still had power, so maybe thats why it slipped my mind. I ended up getting the information I needed from television and internet sources instead witch worked in this situation, but I should have had a checklist with things I had planned, where to find those things, and how to use them. I also don't need to be trying to organize my thoughts into a checklist in the moment, the time to prepare was yesterday, not now.
- What is true now won't be true in 5 minutes. I had to reassess my situation as new information came in, and I simply underestimated how swiftly the situation could change. I stayed calm through the entire situation and took a second to stop and plan my next actions so I didn't make any communication mistakes or irrational plans, but with rapidly changing information, mental plans are simply not sufficient. I shouldn't need to think about what to do for common situations, that mental capacity needs to be available for the unexpected twists and turns that can't be written down.
- Stay calm damn it. One of the things I listed as going well was that I remained calm and never went into a panic. I have been doing lots of outdoor activities my entire life that are often fast paced and one lesson I have learned is that if you want to die, you should panic. I'm serious. If you want to die, panic, and you'll start making irrational decisions that'll cause you to do something very stupid. If a skier cuts you off at 35MPH and you panic instead of keeping your calm and trusting your plans and training, you get very badly hurt. If a bighorn sheep is running at you and you panic (this really happened to us on a hike) it kills you. If you simply get the heck out of its way, nobody gets hurt. I can make hundreds of such examples, including times when a group freaked out and started yelling at each other and dangerous miscommunication followed. These turn bad situations deadly fast. By remaining calm, ensuring I assessed what I knew and didn't know, and followed existing plans, I was able to make rational decisions for myself.
- Adaptable plans. Most of my fire emergency plans were oriented at structure fires in my specific building, not a wild fire. I was able to adapt my fire plans and flood/other evacuation plans to combine them into something as I went, but having nothing written down this would have been easier if I had checklists I could have used. Knowing I had grassy fields near me that are part of parks, I should have probably had these plans, but the point of this AI (action item) is to come up with a way to have written checklists for given emergency types that are broad enough that I can actually effectively use them in different situations. Also, some emergency plans need written down, and some also need committed to memory. During a structural fire, nearby grass fire, flood, tornado, etc, I don't have time to reference a written checklist, The time to reference the checklist is before the situation. That's why drills are so important, so that the list of things that must happen is automatic and handled without second thought.
- My phone cannot be a single point of failure. I should not need to worry about whether I can call 911 if my phone is out, or if my internet goes out will I lose access to a piece of info. Going forward I'll look into HAM radio and other methods of accessing local information that do not depend on single points of failure like a cell tower.
- How do I know if something near me is on fire if my building windows are closed. If that fire had started near me would I have time to realize my building was at risk of catching fire if, like most times in the cold of winter or the heat of a summer day, my windows are closed? Where do I get such information being blind? I know most people can look out the window and see flames, but to some extent, this failure mode is something that everybody has as a vulnerability. My apartment does not have windows that face every direction, so even if I could see I wouldn't get all the necessary info, especially if I'm at work and am not looking out the windows. As of now I have no solutions to this problem. Smoke detectors are great, but they probably won't help until the smoke is smellable anyway unless I'm asleep, or if its in a different room/part of the building. This is another important one, because in the (nearly) desert conditions like eastern Colorado, 5 minutes is 300 years in fire years. A fire will burn through our dry vegitation so unthinkably fast here. I will nevver fully appriciate how fast fires burn.
- Where do I find evacuation maps? A lot of evacuation information is sent through maps, and is visual in nature. I need plans for knowing whether I am in an evacuation zone assuming the information sent out is visual. This is another reason why AM/FM/ham radio is useful. Also, if I have a ham license, I might be able to radio someone local and ask them to tell me if I am in a zone.
- Evacuation routes will be clogged. Best to not make people come from far away. In a sudden evacuation, assume all roads out of your location are jammed packed with traffic and emergency vehicles. It's best to have a neighbor or local friend who has to come your way anyway pick you up. Prepare such evacuation contacts ahead of an emergency. Notify those people that since you can't drive or see, you are preparing evacuation plans and make sure your friends who you would contact are on the same page and are willing to help so that if they have restrictions you don't know about you can be aware.
These are the main action items I came up with after the incident and I write them here so that other blind people have some information to plan for emergencies with. Don't assume that someone elses emergency plans will work for you if you are blind, your needs are going to depend on many factors. Take time to plan for emergencies now, so that you have the best chance of success, and make sure you consider your unique needs as a blind person in those plans. This article is not meant to scare anyone, but rather to educate people on the importance of being prepared, and crucially being prepared in a world full of inaccessible information. It can be done, but you need redundancy in your information gathering, friends, and to stay calm and don't panic.