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Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Answering the Call: How Westminster Staff Helped Neighboring Communities During the Marshall Fire

Answering the Call: How Westminster Staff Helped Neighboring Communities During the Marshall Fire

 

A police commander notices the smoke drifting across I-25 on his commute South from Longmont. A fire battalion chief gets a phone call from a colleague in Boulder. A public works supervisor finds a layer of ash dulling the color of his car and garbage cans.

On what was supposed to be a normal workday, all three Westminster public servants found themselves leading teams of city employees determined to help their neighbors when disaster struck.

On the morning of December 30, 2021, grass fires broke out in Boulder County. By noon, the fire had spread rapidly due to a combination of arid conditions and wind gusts of over 100 mph, engulfing the communities of Superior and Louisville.

“This wasn’t a wildland fire,” said David Varney, Battalion Chief with the Westminster Fire Department. “This was a town fire driven by the combustibles of homes and buildings, one after another with the significant winds. I’ve been on for 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like that.”

In the immediate response, Westminster Fire deployed multiple engines and staff. As those crews entered their assigned neighborhood, they found many of the homes already burning. The flames were fueled by all sorts of combustible building materials, as well as the material possessions families had left behind.

Gusting winds emboldened the fire to jump from one house to another rapidly and unpredictably. By the time firefighters had dug in using hydrants and hoses to douse any remaining structures, they found themselves nearly surrounded and needing to abandon their equipment to escape safely.

“Our supply lines were being compromised to the point where they would have to cut the line and drive off because they were compromising their own safety,” Varney said. “It was constantly changing. It was like a warzone.”

Across town, Westminster Police Commander Trevor Materasso reports to a temporary command post set up in the shell of a former Nordstrom department store. Smoke lingers over the parking lot, where 200 or so emergency vehicles – everything from police cars to fire trucks, snowplows and Humvees – sit and wait for deployment.

Rather than clothing racks and perfume, Materasso was greeted at the door by a single 8.5”x11” piece of paper taped to a table serving as a makeshift check-in station. The building was empty in terms of merchandise, but full of experienced emergency management personnel from neighboring communities awaiting direction.

Within hours, the place was a bustling command center. Walls had been plastered with maps to coordinate road closures and prioritizing ways in and out of the fire zone. People organized into groups based on what training and resources they had available. Westminster’ resources were put to quick use handling evacuations door-to-door while Materasso established a dedicated rescue unit for residents and emergency crews facing ever-changing dangers.

“I ended up with six police officers assigned to parks,” Materasso said. “I don’t remember what agency they were with, but each had 4-wheel drive trucks equipped with air tanks for medical aid, because many of their deployments are responding to injuries and doing first-aid triage until a better medical response can be coordinated.”

While it was a relief to find individuals with the right training and gear, it was a challenge convincing them to stay put.

“I’ve got six of you. I know what you don’t want to hear right now is I need you to stay here at the command post, but the best thing you can do is be here and be ready to respond quickly,” Materasso told his new unit at the time.

The unpredictable nature of this suburban grass fire was a key factor that made the response coordination challenging.

“A forest fire for example starts in a rural community, you see the behavior, you have weather predictions and forecasting, those kinds of things,” Materasso said. “This didn’t allow for that. We didn’t have time to make those decisions, and evacuations had to be done immediately.”

Throughout the response effort, leaders took notice of the additional dangers presented by burning building materials. Police officers returning to the command center resembled coal miners covered in soot in historic photographs. Both Varney and Materasso pointed out that burning plastics and building materials are much different than burning pine and the resulting smoke in a forest blaze.

Westminster staff, alongside all the responding agencies, faced these unique challenges head-on.

“Cops are going to go,” Materasso said. “That’s why they signed up. That’s what’s been put on their heart.”

“It was an outstanding response from our own people,” Varney said. “It does not surprise me whatsoever. It’s because of the commitment to the organization. Firefighters are a different breed. They’re willing to do whatever it takes.”

After the winds subsided and the fire was controlled, the volunteer spirit was sustained by Westminster Public Works staff who jumped at the chance to help out in the aftermath.

Eight members of the water distribution and wastewater collection teams traveled to Superior following the fire to help flush the public water system and get utilities restored.

“During that fire, they had every fire truck hooked up to hydrants, and they’re sucking water out of the distribution system so much so that it almost drains the entire system of water, which has chlorine in there to protect it,” said Roger Harshman with Westminster Public Works and Utilities. “Well once it gets that low, the chlorine levels drop. They were mandated to go to a boil order alert until they were able to flush out their system and get chlorine residuals back to an acceptable level.”

Westminster staff volunteering their time and expertise were able to help the Town of Superior restore water service to its residents. Firefighters and police officers helped control the blaze and get people out of harm’s way. All three leaders agreed that strong relationships are what make Westminster and its neighbors so resilient.

“If this would’ve occurred in the City of Westminster – and it absolutely could have – we would’ve gotten the same support from our neighboring jurisdictions,” Varney said. “That’s a testament to the importance of strong relationships.”

Commander Materasso said one of the key lessons learned is how dedicated City staff are to serving the community at large.

“People used their training and resourcefulness to come together,” he said. “You have a phenomenal group in public safety that is dedicated to working for you.”

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