Thursday, December 30, 12:58 p.m.: Immediate Mandatory Evacuation of the town of Superior, all 13,000 residents. No warning.

By midnight, nearly 1,000 houses in Superior and neighboring Louisville were incinerated and 6,000 acres of grassland torched. As many as 35,000 evacuees, including this correspondent, were sleeping poorly, if at all, in shelters, with friends and relatives or in hotels. (It would be nearly 36 hours before our daughter Victoria could confirm that their family home had been spared—and only by a few blocks.)

Evacuated but not moving in traffic as smoke gets closer. Photo by Elizabeth Bassett
Evacuated but not moving in traffic as smoke gets closer. Photo by Elizabeth Bassett.

On that Thursday we were staying at Victoria’s home in Superior, Colorado, a Denver suburb. Victoria returned from an errand around 12:30 p.m. and told us that Marshall Mesa, a few miles away, was on fire in several locations. She had feared that her Nissan Leaf might blow over on the highway. Victoria tuned in to Boulder dispatch and within minutes told us to start packing. Then she confirmed the order to evacuate—immediately.

John occupied our little grands while Victoria and I shoved clothes, medications, electronics and stuffed animals into duffle bags. With snow in the forecast, we filled canvas bags with mittens, hats, jackets and boots. We grabbed armloads of photo albums and a bag of dog food. Fantastic Mr. Fox went atop the growing pile of possessions in the garage. We crammed our cars to the roof, loaded the kids and dog and started to drive away from the smoke. As we backed out of the driveway, Victoria’s husband, Travis, arrived home from work, too late to do anything except turn around and flee with us.

Then we sat in nearly unmoving traffic. Two lanes inched forward while emergency vehicles raced around us, even on sidewalks and lawns. Smoke billowed behind us and permeated the car. Sirens everywhere—ambulances, fire trucks from across the state, volunteers, police, sheriffs. More smoke, darker brown now, and wind gusts that rocked our big car. After nearly two hours we were still a stone’s throw from home. We crept toward a traffic light where a major road would take us away from this nightmare, but only a handful of cars advanced on each green light. Miles of evacuees were backed up, and we inched forward four cars at a time. Behind us 100 mph wind gusts were driving the flames.

On the evening news, one firefighter said, “You don’t fight a fire like this, you get out of the way and hope the wind dies down.” The exact cause of the fire has not been established but it hardly matters. The fuel was tens of thousands of acres of parched grass. There had been scarcely any rain since spring. Snow usually falls during the autumn months, but Denver had broken its record for no snow so late in the season. And then there was the wind.

Wind + Fuel = Tragedy

The weather forecast for that Thursday was for dangerously high winds with elevated fire danger.

Former Superior neighborhood. Photo by Elizabeth Bassett
Former Superior neighborhood. Photo by Elizabeth Bassett.

Like much of the west, Colorado is experiencing an unprecedented drought, turning standing timber and dry grass into ready fuel. When a forest burns the fuel is consumed and it takes years for new trees to repopulate the land. Meanwhile, grass regrows each spring and desiccates during hot and dry summers; the risk of grass-fueled wildfires persists. Hundreds of thousands of acres of open grassland extend north and west of Denver, one of many quality-of-life features of the region. Those acres could burn again next year and the next and the next….

High winds are nothing new for Boulder. In January 1910, the local paper reported wind-driven fires in Marshall, where the 2021 conflagration began. Since 1967, the Boulder area has experienced at least 15 windstorms with gusts exceeding 100 mph and nearly two dozen events with winds in the 70 to 90 mph range. During a 1982 storm, a gust measured 137 mph.

Locally, these high winds or chinooks occur almost every year due to a combination of topography, the north-south orientation of the Rocky Mountains, and the general movement of continental air from west to east. The air flows up and over the Rockies. The National Weather Service notes, “Mid- and upper-level winds over Colorado are much stronger in winter than in the warm season because of the huge temperature difference from north to south across North America.” These circumstances can create the strong, dry, warm winds that tore across the region on Dec. 30.

Add parched grasslands and the danger is exponential. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) says that when its moisture content is less than 30 percent, fuel is considered to be dead. Dead fuels respond to environmental conditions and determine fire potential. With relative humidity readings in the mid-20-percent range, the dried grass exploded into walls of flame. It is estimated that moisture content in the grass was likely less than 10 percent, possibly as low as 1 percent.

In his poem, “Fire and Ice,” Robert Frost intones,
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.

Not I.