The University of Colorado Police Department’s Emergency Management Division was already on high alert the morning of Dec. 30.
Wind gusts of more than 80 miles an hour whipped through a mostly empty campus on winter break, downing trees and sending roof tiles flying. The three-person team on duty that day was monitoring the Middle Fork Fire north of Boulder while responding to multiple calls for service. Then, the call for what would become the Marshall Fire crackled through their radios.
Flames were spotted along the CU Boulder South property’s eastern border, initiating an immediate evacuation of joggers and dog walkers in the area. CUPD helped communicate their ongoing response, urging residents to stay away, then closed the site due to the erratic, gusty winds.
“Removing the human element from the area created one less concern should the wind direction have shifted, bringing the fire onto [CU Boulder South],” said Commander Bill Webb.
Deon Pfenning, CUPD’s emergency preparedness program manager, looked outside and saw a fast-growing plume of smoke looking south from the police headquarters on Regent Drive.
“We knew there would be impacts to students, faculty and staff who live in that area. We called to offer assistance with anything and everything. We said, ‘Just let us know what you need,’” Pfenning recalled.
Dan Jones, CU Boulder’s associate vice chancellor for integrity, safety and compliance, said campus leaders didn’t hesitate to offer help.
“We were, of course, willing to assist Boulder County agencies in responding to the Marshall Fire,” said Jones. “Anything we can do to provide mutual aid to keep our broader community safe, we will gladly do. I am grateful for how CUPD responded to ensure our campus safety needs and to help our neighboring communities.”
CUPD’s public safety program manager, Carissa Jaquish-Rocha, said the team jumped into action, connecting with Boulder’s Office of Emergency Management and scrambling to organize critical gear and resources for the officers being called in early to assist: eye protection to protect against thick smoke and flying debris, plus water and food for officers who would not be able to return to the police station for many hours.
Officer Guillermo Gonzalez was one of several CUPD officers called in early. As he drove west into Boulder, he kept a wary eye on the ever-growing smoke plume. Initially called in to assist with the CU Boulder South evacuation and closure, he was quickly diverted to unincorporated Boulder County. There, he partnered with officers Paul Thurston and Marc Mustoe, setting up a roadblock and going door to door, urging residents to evacuate.
The experience would be life-changing for the officers. Gonzalez and Thurston relied on their training and friendship (they attended Adams County Sheriff’s Academy together in 2018) as they faced a situation unlike anything they’d encountered before. Working as a team to navigate through the billowing smoke, they were able to safely evacuate several people.
“We quickly realized the predicament we were getting into–the smokescreen was so thick,” Gonzalez said. “But Paul and I made the right choices. My only concern was getting those people out. I did not want to leave anyone in there.”
Webb, who monitored the officers’ progress by police radio, said their actions went above and beyond the call of duty.
“The selfless actions of Officers Gonzalez, Thurston and Mustoe during the emergency evacuation and rescue operations at least prevented injuries and quite possibly saved lives,” he said.
Through the night, CUPD personnel kept watch over the fire, reporting details of the spread of embers and flames and shifts in wind direction to the Boulder Fire Department. Webb continued to direct a mobile response, leaning into the disaster response experience he gained responding to tornadoes at the University of Kentucky, his former post.
“I’ve never seen or experienced anything like this in my 14-year emergency management career,” said Pfenning, noting that while wildfires are nothing new in Colorado, to see this type of event in a suburban area was shocking.
Nearly 900 CU Boulder students and more than 700 faculty and staff members were initially evacuated from the fire’s path. In the end, approximately 155 campus community members saw their homes damaged or destroyed. The university continues to offer support and resources to those impacted by the fire.
Pfenning noted that the emergency management team will review the incident, closely document every detail and incorporate lessons learned into the university’s own emergency preparedness planning and protocols.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle wrote an appreciation letter to CUPD and other agencies, expressing his overwhelming gratitude for the help provided during the blaze, which ultimately consumed more than 6,000 acres and destroyed close to 1,100 homes. Pelle commended the “immediate, brave, selfless response [which] reaffirmed that we are collectively strong and able.”
Webb echoed that sentiment. “The dedication from the police officers, staff and employees at CUPD is amazing,” he said. “It was impressive and humbling.”