Glenwood Springs fire marshal talks local lessons from Front Range’s Marshall Fire
Just before the new year, as Glenwood Springs sat under inches of snow, the Front Range burned.
Nearly 1,000 structures were destroyed after a fire was pushed by strong, consistent winds swiftly across Superior, a suburb of Denver. For all the destruction, only one confirmed death was recorded, and only one person remained unaccounted for, as of Monday.
“I feel badly for the families of those lost, but I think it could have been a lot worse,” Glenwood Springs Fire Department Fire Marshal Greg Bak said. “Historically, if we lost a thousand homes, we could have expected in the hundreds of lives lost.”
Bak — who grew up in nearby Arvada — kept an eye on developments from the fire. He credited the success of the evacuation to the mass subscription to the Boulder County Sheriff’s emergency notification system, according to his viewing of Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle’s press conferences.
A similar system is in place locally: the Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority, which broadcasts messages across emails and text messages to its subscribers.
“People knew it was time to go, and they did,” Bak said. “It gets a little frustrating when I hear people say, ‘Well, we didn’t know it was time to leave.’ Did you have any way to get notified? We have a lot of technology these days that we can utilize, and that’s one of them.”
Glenwood Springs and the rest of Garfield County lack some of the contributing factors that led to the most destructive fire in state history.
The terrain is different: the steep valleys and mountains typically prevent major windstorms from producing constant, strong winds. The fuels are different. No part of Garfield County is populated as densely.
There will be no fires locally that could spread at a rate that could get a speeding ticket on parts of Interstate-70. But a year and a half after the Grizzly Creek Fire, Garfield County is at risk in other ways.
Bak noted a photo in his office, taken of the Grizzly Creek Fire towering in the background, with a cabin in the forefront. The cabin belongs to one of his firefighters. The blaze got close but did not consume the home.
Bak said that nearly all of Glenwood Springs is in the wildland-urban interface, and subsequently at risk from wildfires.
“I’m looking at lessons learned and parts of the Marshall Fire that we can apply here,” Bak said. “I challenge you to stand anywhere in Glenwood and be greater than a mile away from wildland foliage. There may be a couple of spots where if you actually measure it, you’re more than a mile, but most of it here is within it.”
The greatest things people can do locally to be prepared, Bak said, is to practice cognizance around the threat of fires.
He cited the Firewise Communities program, which outlines keeping properties ready to reduce fire spread.
“You’ll see entire neighborhoods decimated, but one house is still standing. I like to focus on that one house,” Bak said. “There was more than luck involved. They had to do something right to make that house survive.”
He also expressed the importance of having an escape plan and knowing exit routes. One of the advantages of the Superior area that Glenwood Springs does not share is an abundance of evacuation routes, so locals need to know what options and backups are available should any be obstructed.
Most importantly in his view, however, is signing up for emergency notifications. Bak could not provide recent numbers, but said that over a year ago the percentage of the population opted in to emergency notifications was below half.
“I think that notification system is what saved lives,” Bak said. “I’m truly convinced … If people needed to get out, they got out, and they weren’t trapped on highways, and they weren’t trapped in their homes.”
Visit GarCo911.com to sign up for Garfield County emergency communications.
Reporter Rich Allen can be reached at 970-384-9131 or email@example.com.
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