The Natural Hazards Center respectfully remembers the Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colorado. On December 30, 2021, the rapidly moving Marshall Fire burned nearly 1,100 homes and businesses; forced the evacuation of an estimated 30,000 residents; and scorched 6,000 acres of land in the Town of Superior, the City of Louisville, and unincorporated Boulder County. The fire caused more than $2 billion in losses, making it the costliest disaster in Colorado history.

Following the fire, we issued a special call for Quick Response Research proposals. With the support of the National Science Foundation, the Center ultimately funded five projects to study evacuation behavior and the immediate effects of the fire on people, pets, ecosystems, and the built environment. In the run-up to the one year anniversary of the devastating fire, we summarize some of the key findings from the Quick Response Research Reports published to date.

QR350 | The 2021 Marshall Fire: Rapid Integrated Damage Assessment (2022)
Karl Kim, Lily Bui, Eric Yamashita, Mike Vorce, Lisa Webster, and Dave Marasco

Kim and colleagues applied novel damage assessment methods integrating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Social Vulnerability Index (SVI), qualitative interviews, and analysis of pre- and post-event 360-degree Google Street View imagery to assess social and environmental impacts of the wildfire. They concluded that, despite relatively high levels of socioeconomic status, survivors of the Marshall Fire demonstrated vulnerability in household composition and disability, minority status and language, and household type and transportation. Additionally, homes in the area tended to be uninsured against wildfires and many of the buildings that were affected by the fire had high risk and exposure levels due to their location along the WUI.

QR349 | Survey of Evacuation Behavior in the 2021 Marshall Fire, Colorado (2022)
Ana Forrister, Xiang Yan, Zehui Yin, Xilei Zhao, Tom Cova, Ruggiero Lovreglio, Daniel Nilsson, and Erica Kuligowski

Forrister and colleagues analyzed evacuation decision-making and travel behaviors, applying a survey used in another fire context to the Marshall Fire and improving upon that survey by adding new measures of transportation mode, route, and destination choices made by evacuees. The authors report that respondents were prone to using personal vehicles for evacuation and preferred a major road as their evacuation route. As has been found with past disasters, most respondents went to a friend’s or family member’s residence, rather than a mass shelter, again emphasizing the importance of pre-existing social connections in disaster evacuation.

QR348 | Social Capital, Mobility, and Evacuation Destinations During the Marshall Fire (2022)
Daniel Aldrich, Courtney Page-Tan, Tim Fraser, and Takahiro Yabe

Another research group led by Aldrich and colleagues sought to understand why and how people evacuate from disaster events with little or no warning. Their findings further establish the importance of social networks and suggest that investing in opportunities to socialize (like parks or community groups) may help strengthen ties in communities and promote public trust in social infrastructure.

QR347 | Tracking the Effects of the Marshall Fire on Pets and People (2022)
Leslie Irvine and Casara Andre

Irvine, a sociologist, and Andre, a doctor of veterinary medicine, teamed up to investigate the role of pet ownership in disaster settings. Estimating that more than 1,000 pets perished in the Marshall Fire, their team examined the circumstances that denied pet owners the opportunity to save these beloved animals. Sharing the emotional consequences borne by those whose pet(s) died in the fire, this study suggests that strong community ties similar to those helpful for the evacuation of humans may also help with pet evacuation.

In addition to these research reports, the Natural Hazards Center team—through our CONVERGE initiative—convened four Virtual Forums focused on the Marshall Fires. These forums provided the space for researchers and emergency managers to communicate, coordinate, collaborate, and share preliminary research findings. One of the outcomes of these forums was that a large group of researchers joined together to create the Marshall Fire Unified Research Survey. This effort not only strengthened science through bringing researchers together across disciplines, it also lessened survey response burden for affected people, through issuing one major survey to people in or near the burn zone.

Those interested in learning more about the Marshall Fire projects and other recently funded research efforts can visit the Natural Hazards Center archive of completed Quick Response Research reports.

Additional Information on the Marshall Fire: