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Fires outside of Denver were the most destructive in Colorado history

DAVID GURA, HOST:

Snow has arrived in Colorado, just in time to all but extinguish the wildfires that whipped through subdivisions northwest of Denver earlier this week. The full extent of the damage is still being assessed, with at least 500 homes destroyed, making the Marshall Fire the most destructive ever in the whole state. Colorado Public Radio's Sam Brasch has been covering the fires from the start and is here to explain what happened and why they were so destructive. Thanks for being here.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

GURA: So as we said, a full picture of the damage is still being put together. What do we know about how dangerous this fire was to people?

BRASCH: Well, there's no doubt that it was dangerous. Two whole towns, Louisville and Superior, had to evacuate, forcing more than 30,000 people to flee. What's pretty amazing, though, is that so far, there haven't been any reports of fatalities. At a press conference, Governor Jared Polis said it was a testament to the evacuation effort.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

JARED POLIS: If we're granted this New Year's miracle of no loss of life, it truly is nothing short of miraculous. Most, if not all, people got out and are safe. And we as their friends and neighbors and fellow Coloradans are going to do everything we can to help them rebuild their lives.

GURA: The photos that we're seeing of this are just devastating, entire neighborhoods wiped off the map. All that's left are blackened trees, the foundations of big houses, apartment complexes. We've seen similar photos from previous fires in Colorado, but it sounds like this one was different.

BRASCH: Yeah, and the big difference was the setting. Previous wildfires have mainly played out in mountain towns and remote national forests. These were grass fires that started out on the plains at the foot of the mountains and then blew in the neighborhoods, burning from backyard to backyard across completely ordinary suburbs. Grass fires on the prairies around Colorado's most populous cities aren't really that unusual. But typically, they can be put out pretty quickly. What was different this time is the strength and persistence of the winds. People who lived out here their whole lives say they've never seen anything like the winds we saw Thursday. They gusted up above 110 miles per hour at times and didn't let up for hours and hours.

GURA: So let me ask you about the timing of this. I mean, Colorado, of course, is world famous as a winter destination. People go there in December to ski, to snowboard. Why are these fires happening at a time when locals are often shoveling snow out of their driveways?

BRASCH: You know, a big part of the reason is climate change. Fire season has just been getting longer and longer. And at this point, it pretty much lasts all year. That's according to Jennifer Balch. She's a fire scientist who directs the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. She told me that the rise in global temperatures helped drive a record dry, warm winter here in Colorado. And that primed these grasslands around these suburbs for fires.

JENNIFER BALCH: Climate change is essentially keeping our fuels drier longer. These grasses that were burning - you know, they've been baked, essentially, all fall and all winter. On top of that, we didn't get a lick of moisture.

BRASCH: You know, the last factor here was these wind storms, which Balch says it's important to note wasn't so much about climate change as just plain bad luck. The gusts not only fueled the flames, but it made it impossible for firefighters to fly planes or really do anything other than just get people out as quickly as they could.

GURA: It almost feels like a cliche asking you this this last question, but is this the new normal? Are these fires something people living in these suburbs just need to be ready for from now on?

BRASCH: You know, I think what this is is a really sickening reminder of the true size of the wildfire danger zone, sometimes called the wildland urban interface, or the WUI. Many assume that area only includes mountains and forested areas. But the truth is fires are a natural part of grassland ecosystems, too. And as Colorado's population has grown rapidly in the last few decades, people are building more and more homes in those areas. The state now estimates that half of Colorado's population lives in areas vulnerable to wildfires.

GURA: Wow.

BRASCH: Balch says these particular fires should be a wake-up call for policymakers, a disaster that gets them thinking about how to control potential ignition sources and build more fire-resistant neighborhoods even reduce fuels through controlled burns.

GURA: That's Sam Brasch, reporter for Colorado Public Radio in Denver, Colo. Thanks, Sam.

BRASCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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