Listen: How cities in the West can prepare for the Western wildfire threat.
Are cities in the West prepared for a perpetual fire season?
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On today's program, we talked about the increasing threat of wildfires in urban areas across the western United States.
... It's hard to adequately describe the intense heat, the hurricane-force winds, the hellish fire that destroyed more than a thousand homes and structures in Colorado on December 30th. That was the Marshall Fire.
It's hard to understand how fast that fire moved, how large it grew and how deeply it impacted communities. Until you hear stories like this.
On December 30th, Cynthia Wallace was at home in Louisville, Colorado:
CYNTHIA WALLACE: I looked out the window and I was like, Hey, there's an orange cloud out there. And my husband said, Yeah, you know, there's a big dust cloud. Because it was a windy day. And then we got a text from one of our neighbors saying, Hey, there's a brushfire across the highway, just letting you know. I'm like, OK, well, you know, we're in a suburban neighborhood. They're going to go take care of that. Put it out and no big deal. And then the smoke just started getting worse.
WALLACE: And around 1 p.m. my husband was in the backyard trying to water down our fence in case, you know, some sparks came our way. And he ran inside and said, there's a fire in the yard behind us. I texted my mom and my sister and I said, I'm 90% sure my house is burning down today. Then we went to a hotel where some of our other neighbors had reserved a room just to wait to see what we were going to do. And we turned on the news, and already all the news coverage was of our neighborhood in flames.
WALLACE: We could see the houses and we knew who they were, and it wasn't just kind of on fire, it was raging. One of our neighbors has a first responder for his son, and he let us all know that our houses were gone that evening. For the kids, our youngest is three, and she doesn't have the vocabulary to really understand. She asked a lot of questions about, Are we going back to the house where my stuff is? A lot of questions about, Is the hotel going to burn down? Why is there a fire sprinkler on the ceiling of the hotel room? I mean, you get these repetitive questions because she's trying to figure out, is any place going to burn down?
CHAKRABARTI: That's Cynthia Wallace from Louisville, Colorado. That same day, in nearby Superior, Steve Sarin was watching flames creep ever closer to his apartment building.
He'd been driving back home from a work assignment in Fort Collins when he started getting phone alerts about the fire.
STEVE SARIN: My phone started blowing up with text messages from my apartment complex saying that we were under Stage One evacuation warning. And local news app notifications that there was a wildfire a few miles from my house and that the 115-plus mph wind gusts were driving it across the plains really, really quickly. We have lots of wildfires in Colorado, but where Superior is we were under the false assumption that we're relatively protected. The mountains are about eight to 10 miles away from us, where the majority of wildfires take place.
SARIN: They would have to cross eight miles of grassy plains to get to us. It's just not something we regularly think of as a danger to our homes and our lives. I pulled into the apartment complex, and there were about 30 of my neighbors sitting, standing outside, just watching it come over the ridge that you can see from here. And the fire was blowing insanely fast. You could see it going. We were guessing 20 to 30 feet a second, because of the wind. It was just flying.
SARIN: After about 20 minutes of just watching the neighborhood burn, the winds changed a little bit, the smoke was right in our faces and it jumped the road. We could see that it was in the neighborhood next to ours, probably about half a mile away and just going house to house. We couldn't see the houses, but we could see the smoke coming closer, and closer and closer. It was at that point that I realized that we weren't watching a wildfire anymore, that we were part of this situation.
SARIN: I don't think cities out West are prepared for the dangers of wildfires, if they can come at any time within a matter of an hour. I think we do a decent job out here in Colorado or preparing for wildfires that happen in the mountains. I've been out here in this area for eight years, and the only time I ever thought that there might be a wildfire that affected me was 48 hours before this. I was driving up McCaslin Boulevard right near the Target and Costco that were destroyed.
SARIN: And I looked out of the grass over the plains and I thought, Geez, that is really dry. I don't know if I've ever seen it that dry. If someone driving up this road flicks a cigarette, these neighborhoods are going to be gone. And 48 hours later, I came to eat those words. It wasn't a cigarette, but it was just, I remember thinking, I just said that this could happen.
CHAKRABARTI: That was Steve Sarin, from Superior, Colorado. Just two of the voices we heard in an hour about how urban and suburban areas in the West can become more fire resilient. Listen to the program here.
This segment aired on January 10, 2022.