Matt Sparkman (Mgmt’16) was enjoying a relaxing day off from work at his home in Marshall when he stepped outside and smelled smoke on Dec. 30.
Sparkman, who works as senior program manager for principal gifts in the CU Boulder advancement office, ran into the house to grab some warm clothes and a scarf to cover his face. By the time he got back outside, he could see black smoke billowing over the ridgeline west of his house.
“I decided that, with the wind as strong as it was, I was just going to leave,” he said. “I didn’t take anything, I was just like, ‘I have to get out of here.’”
Sparkman safely evacuated to his parents’ house in South Boulder just in time. As the fire barreled east toward Superior, and then Louisville, it reduced the cozy rental cottage where he’d spent the last four years to a pile of charred rubble.
So far, he’s maintaining a positive outlook about losing all of his belongings — he knows he can replace them easily enough. But Sparkman is still mourning the damage caused to the landscape and the fact that he’ll have to move out of Marshall, the small, unincorporated community just south of Boulder and east of Hwy. 93.
“More so than missing things, it's the ability to just go out my door and go for a run, go link up to Marshall Mesa so quickly, the neighborhood community — those are the things I miss most about Marshall,” he said. “It’s just sad to see the scorched landscape and the trees. It was such a unique place because you had creeks,you had huge trees, you had open space. I’d see all sorts of birds and wildlife, and it’ll take some time for the land to look like it used to.”
Sparkman is just one of the many CU Boulder community members affected by the Marshall Fire, which forced an estimated 899 students and 771 faculty and staff members to evacuate. It ultimately damaged or destroyed approximately 155 of their homes.
All told, the blaze destroyed 1,084 homes and damaged 149 others in Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County, causing more than $500 million in damage to residences, according to Boulder County totals. As of press time, one death was confirmed from the fire.
For many people, the disaster was a wakeup call: Front Range communities and subdivisions are susceptible to wildfires, just like the Colorado mountain homes surrounded by trees. According to Jennifer Balch, a leading fire scientist and CU Boulder associate professor of geography, it was only a matter of time before a fast-moving urban wildfire like this one swept through a heavily populated area.
Research led by Balch and colleagues in Earth Lab, part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at CU Boulder, found that 1 million U.S. homes were within wildfire perimeters over the last two decades, and 59 million others were within a kilometer. They also found that humans were responsible for touching off 97% of wildfires that threatened homes over the same period.
Taken together, the findings paint an already harrowing picture about the potential dangers wildfires pose to residential areas. Add to that rising temperatures, drought, dry grasses and strong winds brought on by big temperature swings — factors researchers say are linked to climate change — and the West could experience more destructive wildfires like the Marshall Fire in the very near future, Balch said.
“I can tell you for sure that we're going to have another event like this at some point — I don’t know where and I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but our communities are at risk,” said Balch, whose team is already making plans to study the Marshall Fire. “Our ecosystems are adapted to fire, we’ve just put a lot [of structures] in the way and now we have to reckon with that. To me, this is climate change in the here and now in Colorado.”
While many people were fleeing the fire’s path, Ryan Chreist (Kines’96;MPubAd’09), who lives just north of Louisville, headed straight into the blaze. On top of his job as assistant vice chancellor and executive director of the CU Boulder Alumni Association, Chreist serves as a volunteer firefighter with the Louisville Fire Department, a post he's held since 2002.
For 14 hours, Chreist helped battle the fire on the ground in Louisville. In addition to using hoses to fight the flames engulfing structures, trees, bushes and grass to try to slow the spread to other houses, he used wildland tools to cut down wooden fences and remove grass and brush to keep them from catching fire. When He finally got home a little after 3 a.m., he was exhausted and covered in ash and soot; the fire had singed his hair andthe constant barrage of smoke and debris made it painful to keep his eyes open.
Though it took Chreist a few days to process the “apocalyptic” scenes he'd witnessed while fighting the fire, he said,eventually, the sense of loss began to hit him in waves.
But as he began to reflect on all that Boulder County has been through in recent years — the 2013 floods, the pandemic, the King Soopers shooting, other wildfires — he also found himself thinking about something more hopeful: resilience. In all of those instances, the community immediately stepped up and found ways to help, both big and small.
“We tend to think of ourselves as being separated by the name of our towns, but really, we’re all dealing with the same benefits and challenges of living in this place,” he said. “Things like this bring the community together in the long run. We’re all in this together.”
Photos by Matt Tyrie and Glenn Asakawa