The story of the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history didn’t end with the receding of hurricane-strength winds and the extinguishing of the blaze’s last embers. Over a year later, while some questions the Marshall Fire left in its wake have been answered, many others remain, including where future public policy should go.
For those answers, the Marshall Fire Recovery & Resilience Working Group looked to the communities affected by the Dec. 30, 2021, fire that destroyed over 1,000 homes. The team includes Katherine Dickinson, PhD, assistant professor of Environmental & Occupational Health at the Colorado School of Public Health.
Aerial imagery from shortly after the Marshall Fire shows that even in the heavily impacted original Town of Superior, flames avoided some structures.
Dickinson and her colleagues conducted several rounds of surveys with residents from unincorporated Boulder County, Louisville and Superior through a National Science Foundation grant to gauge the community’s response and resilience to the fire. As of the latest survey round, conducted between November 2022 and March 2023, over half the residents who lost a home in the fire, the survey found, haven’t even begun rebuilding, and respondents with fewer resources were least likely to have applied for or gotten building permits so far.
“It can be a little bit tough to figure out exactly where we should be, versus where we are,’’ said Dickinson, whose home, while spared, was about a mile from the fire perimeter. “But the reality is that we only have a very small number of people who have been able to move back into their homes. It’s sobering to understand what a long road recovery really is.”
Survey finds improving but evolving picture
The group’s survey focused on measuring the community’ resilience. Respondents impacted by the Marshall Fire answered questions on a range of topics, from environmental and health impacts to community connections and rebuilding.
View wave one and two survey results from the Marshall Fire Recovery & Resilience Working Group.
Dickinson called the results a window into how to view community response and construct public policy options in areas impacted by a climate-fueled disaster.
“We talk about the climate crisis hitting some less-privileged communities first and hardest, but that doesn't mean that other communities are immune. All communities need to figure out how to build their resilience.”
Some survey responses show a community healing, with strong improvement from wave one of the survey to wave two. Views on water quality in Superior, for example, have improved significantly over the last year, alongside improving confidence with indoor air quality among those living in their pre-fire homes. Most respondents also indicated they feel strong social support among their friends or family in times of need.
At the same time, the survey shows a community still in recovery.
Colorado State University's Wildfire Risk Public Viewer shows the Marshall Fire's perimeter and current wildfire risk levels - darker red areas denote highest risk.
“Fifty-six percent of our survey respondents who lost a home are still in a pre-permit phase and haven’t even begun rebuilding,” said Dickinson. Pre-permits are even higher for those with a lower household income, exacerbated by a widespread underinsurance issue – only 4% of wave two survey respondents said their homeowner’s insurance will cover all of their rebuilding costs.
Given those rebuilding gaps, Dickinson and her colleagues have seen some of the most nuanced responses around construction and energy code survey questions.
Homing in on structural rebuilding
“We asked people if they think that we should provide more affordable housing as we're recovering from the fire,” Dickinson said. “The good news that I see is that the majority of people are supportive. But part of what we're seeing, and something that we've been scratching our heads about a little bit, is some hesitancy around building affordable housing among those who experienced fire damage – as well as energy codes.”
The surveys asked whether local governments should have required fire victims to rebuild to the latest, most energy-efficient codes. “The majority in Superior and Louisville disagree with that,” Dickinson said. “In Louisville, 66% disagree, while in Superior 52% disagree. In Boulder, 46% disagree. And then there are about a quarter that are just neutral.”
One cross-section of the survey looked at 160 respondents who experienced complete loss of their homes. Researchers noted that higher-income households and households that have higher expected insurance coverage are substantially farther along in the rebuilding process.
Community respondents also varied when asked whether fire-resistant materials and landscaping should be required for all new buildings, including homes being rebuilt after the fire. “In those responses, we saw 52% agreed with that sentiment in Superior, 67% agreed in Boulder, with Louisville respondents agreeing only at 40%.”
Marshall Fire research across the University of Colorado
Dickinson and her colleagues' research efforts are in tandem with efforts to examine water, soil, air and other environmental impacts at CU Boulder, CU Denver and other collaborating universities across the country.
Cost concerns and material shortages among those repairing or rebuilding likely informs responses to both the energy code and fire-resistant construction questions, Dickinson said. Given pervasive underinsurance among fire-affected households, residents were reasonably concerned about being able to rebuild, and new codes were seen as another source of uncertainty potentially standing in the way of allowing people to rebuild and move back home.
Large-scale code changes drew the largest support. Land-use policies and open space management to prevent future wildfire impacts saw strong majorities in all three communities, with respondents saying they agree or strongly agree with pursuing those changes.
For Dickinson, the variation is simultaneously encouraging and concerning. “This is exactly the moment when equity and climate-focused policies need to be at the forefront, because what we're seeing is that folks without secure resources are going to fall behind and be at further risk in the future.”
Combining generosity with smart policy
Despite the policy decision hurdles and complex attitudes and feelings in the wake of the Marshall Fire, as a community member, Dickinson takes comfort in the wins and progress made.
Homes being rebuilt in Superior that were impacted by the Marshall Fire.
“I think there's a lot of just great stories of the community coming together – of folks supporting each other through the recovery,” she said. “I think people found ways to share that and need to support each other.”
What remains noteworthy to Dickinson was the overwhelming generosity shown in taking care of those impacted by the fire in the immediate aftermath – when items such as clothing were being turned away due to surplus donations. Even small ceremonial steps such as the return of grass and vegetation in burned areas, the completion of demolitions, or the ribbon cutting for the first certificate of occupancy that was issued in Louisville, are small moments to celebrate.
As for a path forward, Dickinson believes that the key is to find a way to link the initial post-fire generosity with smart, climate-focused state and local resilience policies that are well communicated.
“Heather McGee's book The Sum of Us is my favorite book,” she said. “One part that resonates with me as we think about the Marshall Fire is that: We're not in a zero-sum world – we're in a solidarity dividend world. We're all going to be better off if everyone around us is thriving.”