Lessons from Colorado’s Marshall Fire
Until recently, however, the cause of the fire remained a mystery. In early June, the Boulder County Sheriff’s office released the results of its investigation into the fire’s origin, identifying two sparks: a seemingly dormant ember blown from an outdoor firepit in Marshall, and a downed Xcel Energy power line a few hundred feet south. The findings resolved one major question about the Marshall Fire, though other challenges, from building codes to home insurance disputes, still smolder for the residents.
High Country News spoke with Ashley Stolzmann, the former mayor of Louisville and a current Boulder County commissioner, to understand the significance of the investigation, how to prepare for the next wildfire, and the details behind a lawsuit seeking damages from Xcel Energy for its role in starting the inferno.
Stolzmann has amassed an unusual amount of experience when it comes to responding to climate disasters. Her first month as a Louisville city council member coincided with the 2013 Front Range flood, the largest rain event on record in Colorado, which destroyed 262 homes in Boulder County. That earned her an appointment to the Mile High Flood District by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, D, in 2020. A year later, the Marshall Fire forced then-Mayor Stolzmann and her husband to evacuate alongside 40,000 other area residents as she juggled the city’s disaster response. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
High Country News: You were mayor of Louisville during the blaze in 2021 and still live there today. As the fire bore down on the city, residents were sending you texts for information you didn’t have. At the same time, you had to lead the city’s emergency response while making your own decisions about what to save from your home as you evacuated. Could you walk me through what happened that day?
Ashley Stolzmann: I live in Louisville, very close to where the fire was extinguished. In my family, we sort of divided up the tasks that day. I have a great partner and he took care of evacuating our house and worrying about our personal life. That allowed me to go over to emergency operations and just focus on the city stuff. So, my partner really helped me to split my personal life apart from what I was working on for the community. And It was really hard, because neighbors would text me or call me and ask, “Is our neighborhood still here? Is our house OK?” And I didn’t know. It was important that I followed all the evacuation orders that we set because I couldn’t break the rules myself. I actually found out from a neighbor that did break the evacuation rules that our house was still standing.
HCN: What has the Marshall Fire come to mean for Louisville and Boulder County?
AS: For the most part, it really has brought people together and shown them the goodness in others: how people really want to help, and continue to want to help. Early in the recovery, some of the community had gas and power and shared their homes with those that didn’t. People were offering showers and heated beds and food. The food sharing has gone on for the whole year and a half, where folks cook dinners for one another and feed each other. Just a lot of caring for one another and resilience. But the fire has also set others back and forced some hard choices. I’ve heard from residents who had to use their children’s college savings account to rebuild their house. There are people that had to decide they’re not rebuilding, just because of their financial situation and their retirement plans. And there are some who didn’t want to rebuild just from the pain of the whole thing. Overall, people have really shown how supportive and resilient they are, what a strong community this is.
HCN: Based on what we know from climate science, this likely won’t be the last Front Range fire catapulted by extreme winds and drought conditions. What have the county and state done to prepare for the next one?
AS: We’re really ramping up the amount of mitigation we’re doing in the forest and in the grasslands. The community was generous and passed the new tax for fire mitigation that has allowed us to unlock more federal grants because, for any FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) grants, you must have local money to match it. We have done more controlled burns this year, we’ve mitigated more acres of forest land, and we’re grazing areas heavily with livestock to cut down on fuel. But we’re trying to do that with more regenerative practices that keep the water and moisture in the soil. Then came this rainy spring, and we know that means even more fire fuel to manage later down the line. We’ve also made changes to our evacuation system and made changes to the way we dispatch firefighters so that we can try to put out fires faster.
The biggest piece of it that I’m excited about is we’re working on a public communications plan. It’s a Smokey the Bear-style campaign with the theme of, ‘How can you prepare for forest fires and grassland fires?’ Because there’s another fire coming. It teaches residents about the importance of fire screens on roof vents to keep embers from getting sucked in and of having a fire-resistant perimeter surrounding the home. The campaign also talks about having photos of your house taken, so your insurance company has documentation of what you had in your house; it also underscores the importance of having insurance that’s up to date and a plan for evacuation.
“I’ve heard from residents who had to use their children’s college savings account to rebuild their house”
HCN: Insurance companies have fought to prevent payouts to those who lost their homes, adding to the trauma of the fire. What steps are being taken to make sure future wildfire victims are fairly compensated after a loss?
AS: We got two bills passed at the state level this year that I’m proud of. One is about the insurance payout and what people get in a declared disaster and complete loss to make it so that people don’t have to go through the retraumatization of itemizing everything they lost. Judy Amabile, our state representative, brought a bill to correct that part of the insurance process. It allows the Division of Insurance to look at the payout levels on an ongoing basis. The way insurance works is they have software that assesses what the company thinks it will cost to rebuild.
And then the other bill we passed is called the FAIR Act. The state can now step in with public insurance if a consumer is told by the companies, “No, we will not insure your home.” So, there’s a way for every person in the state to get insurance, because we were starting to see people being denied coverage.
HCN: There’s an ongoing lawsuit against the utility giant Xcel Energy seeking damages since it was one of the company’s downed powerlines that initiated the Marshall Fire. The county investigation confirmed that the dangling wire was one of the fire’s two ignition points but found no grounds for criminal charges against the company. What do you think about the lawsuit and the decision not to pursue charges against Xcel?
AS: The sheriff’s office did the investigation and then the district attorney looked to see if there could be charges brought. So much detailed effort was put in to really consider if there was a case for a criminal charge, and the district attorney found there was not. But that doesn’t mean that people cannot pursue civil lawsuits for accountability.
HCN: The fire torched over a thousand homes in Boulder County. How far has the recovery come in the year and a half since?
AS: For our community members, it’s not going nearly fast enough. We want everybody back home. But from a disaster standpoint, when you look at other disasters like ours, we are really doing great as a community getting homes rebuilt. All of the debris is removed, and more than half of the people who lost their homes are well into the process of rebuilding, which is incredible. And then the best news I can deliver is that the rebuilding of a large condo unit that burned down, broke ground last weekend. That was one that was keeping me up at night.
Samuel Shaw is an editorial intern for High Country News based in the Colorado Front Range. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. Follow Samuel on Instagram @youngandforgettable.