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The Story Behind the Marshall Fire

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Firefighters called it an urban firestorm.

Fueled by drought and hurricane-force winds, Colorado’s Marshall Fire jumped from one home to the next on December 30, 2021.

It moved in unpredictable and unprecedented ways.

One year later and with a minute-by-minute examination, 9NEWS highlights the implications of the day more than 1,000 homes

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Firefighters called it an urban firestorm.

Fueled by drought and hurricane-force winds, Colorado’s Marshall Fire jumped from one home to the next on December 30, 2021.

It moved in unpredictable and unprecedented ways.

One year later and with a minute-by-minute examination, 9NEWS highlights the implications of the day more than 1,000 homes

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Produced by: Chris Hansen

The Marshall Fire wasn’t just the most destructive wildfire the state had ever seen. As thousands fled the windswept fire and embers, it quickly became Colorado’s most documented natural disaster as well.

Cell phones, body cameras and security cameras recorded the unprecedented evacuation in a dizzyingly chaotic display of improvisation and panic.

The 9NEWS ORIGINALS team spent months geolocating and timestamping hundreds of these videos to help the public better understand the precise path of its destruction.

Starting with a video recorded by Jack Pommer near the fire’s origin, this collection of videos from the second-to-last day of 2021 represents a first-of-its-kind effort to document what life was like for thousands of people in Boulder County.

December 30, 2021

Use the slide bar to show you, in half-hour increments, where and when witnesses recorded the fire's path. Click on the dots to display the video.

1:02 PM
Arvada Fire Protection District

An early glimpse of firefighters trying to limit the spread of the Marshall Fire on the fire’s western side just east of Highway 93 on Marshall Road

1:32 PM
Jennifer Butler

As the fire sweeps east, a driver hops the median of Dillon Road near the Coal Creek Golf Course in Louisville.

4:39 PM
Sunshine Fire Protection District

By late afternoon, homes continue to burn in sections of Boulder County. This home was located in Original Town Superior.

5:08 PM
Golden Police Department

Jefferson County deputies evacuate homes along Cordova Court in Louisville.

6:40 PM
Brook Aitken

The Marshall Fire's northern edge along Harper Lake as seen by cinematographer Brook Aitken's drone.


Produced by: Chris Hansen and Chris Vanderveen

I just felt like I needed to record it

As Robert Gutierrez drove west on Marshall Road a few minutes before noon, he recorded the early and explosive growth of what was quickly becoming an unfightable fire.

His video, not surprisingly, is filled with curse words.

At one moment, as a cloud of thick smoke surrounded his car, he screamed, “Holy f---!”

“Oh my God! Holy sh--! This is Superior right now. I can’t see sh--!”

He turned around. He still couldn’t see. “My mom is going to be so pissed at me.”

“Yeah, I cursed a lot. I think it was just a moment of shock,” he recalled. “It was so intense.”

“I felt like it was something I’ve never seen in my life before,” he said. “I just felt like I needed to record it.”

Robert Gutierrez

His video, along with hundreds of others catalogued by 9NEWS, highlights the moments the Marshall Fire transformed from a grass fire into something known as an urban firestorm.

“That dynamic is really different,” said Maxwell Cook, a fire researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder. “It went from consuming vegetation to consuming structures.”

“The Marshall Fire tells us we have a lot to learn and a lot to prepare for,”

One of the primary factors of an urban firestorm is the spread of embers from one building to the next.

West Metro Fire Rescue

Embers fly through in the air as night falls in Louisville.

“They carry the fire. Some of them can be as big as your hand. The wind will just carry the embers for miles in a hopscotch pattern,” said Anne Cope, PhD, the Chief Engineer for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS). IBHS sent a team to Boulder County to study the Marshall Fire earlier this year.

“We’ve found up to 90% of the ignitions that happen [in an urban/suburban environment] are ember cast,” she said.

It’s why it was common to see homes burned in areas where trees and grasses survived mostly unscathed.

Fires in urban and suburban settings, Cope said, tend to capitalize on the weak spots in some buildings.

Marcelo Rainero

Anne Cope

Mike Macinko

“You get one weak link and that fire is going to find its way in,” she said. Think of pine needles in a gutter, a large juniper bush right next to a large window, or an attic vent that’s not covered by a screen.

Wood fences that run right up to the house, in the case of the Marshall Fire, proved to be a vulnerability as well.

West Metro Fire Rescue

Corp. Marcelo Rainero is with the Louisville Police Department and was one of the first officers on scene when the fire erupted shortly after noon on December 30, 2021.

“You could see the embers flying so fast,” he said. “It was amazing how the fire spread from one spot to another.”

“I’m a combat veteran. I was in the Army, and I was in Iraq for a couple of tours. There was a moment when I thought I was back in Iraq. There was a time when I thought the whole city was going to burn.”

Mike Macinko wishes he could have recorded more.

The Boulder County resident recorded his own home burning. “I was literally able to film my house burning from 2 or 3 feet away. I was upwind of it,” he said.

“I watched my neighbor’s house catch on fire,” he said. “I think I just realized there was nothing I could do.”

“I think every single person wishes they could go back in time and document even better,” he added.

One of his final videos shows him recording a message for his son. “I was like… I wanted him to know that I did what I could to try to save our house and there’s just some times when you can’t. I just wanted him to know that there’s a way to pick up the pieces and move on,” he said.

Longmont Fire Department

Lisa Young lost both her home and her late father's Corvette on Troon Court in Louisville.

The Marshall Fire burned more than 1,000 homes and killed two people. But that day could have been worse.

Not long before Gutierrez’s hurling of expletives, Boulder firefighters found themselves battling a relatively small fire about 8 miles north of downtown Boulder.

The Middle Fork Fire, like the Marshall Fire in its infancy, was moving quickly due to the strong winds that day.

Chris Rodgers

Chris Rodgers captured a few pictures of it shortly before and after 11am.

“I could see the smoke from Boulder,” he said. “It was very windy.”

Code 10 Photography

Less than an hour before the start of the Marshall Fire, photographer Chris Rodgers captures the start of a fire north of Boulder. Firefighters call it the Middle Fork Fire.

Firefighters quickly put the fire out, but modeling done by a project scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research suggests had they not, the fire might have rivaled if not bested the Marshall Fire in terms of damage.

Janice Coen’s model shows the Middle Fork Fire could have burned into very populated areas.

“I’ve seen the model from NCAR,” said Rodgers. “It basically stated that had this fire not been caught by the firefighters… it would have headed into Longmont.”

“Even all the way to I-25,” he added. “Things could have been different in this area for sure.”


Thirteen minutes before noon on a warm and windy December day, a small shed burned on property owned by the Twelve Tribes religious sect.

Jack Pommer didn’t think much of the fire at first. “It really didn’t occur to me that it would be big,” said Pommer.

As we now know, that immediate hope turned out to be wrong.

Over the course of the next eight hours, the fire would transform from a seemingly insignificant fire into a monster.

Follow along, one video and one location at a time, as the Marshall Fire moves into Superior and Louisville.

1:01 PM
Code 10 Photography

By early afternoon, smoke darkens skies as spot fires threaten homes in Superior.

1:41 PM
Jack Pommer

The Marshall Fire spreads east as seen from Panorama Point in Boulder.

2:17 PM
Code 10 Photography

The Marshall Fire threatens the front of Louisville PD headquarters.

3:38 PM
Longmont Fire Department

Longmont firefighter Joe Ginsberg works to protect salvageable homes on Troon Court in Louisville.

5:40 PM
Genesse Fire Protection District

As embers fly across South Indiana Street in Superior, a home burns in the distance.


Produced by: Steve Staeger, Sam Bergum, Chris Hansen, Chris Vanderveen

No warning. No time.

As the wind-whipped Marshall Fire neared some of the most populated areas of Boulder County, thousands in cities like Louisville and Superior remained largely unaware they needed to leave.

A decade-old system the federal government calls “an essential part of America’s emergency preparedness” had yet to go live in the county. The county’s head of emergency management blames, among other things, COVID for the delay in its implementation.

A 9NEWS ORIGINALS investigation found many more counties in Colorado remain vulnerable to the same problem faced by scores of people like Jane Fuller of Louisville.

“I expected somebody to call or text me on my phone and say it’s time to evacuate,” she said.

No call or text arrived.

Only when flames started to chew up homes in her neighborhood did the reality of the danger hit her and her husband.

“At that point, it was panic,” she said.

In order to better understand the problem, you’ve got to better understand the system.

In typical bureaucratic parlance, it goes by the names IPAWS and WEA. The former is short for Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. The latter is short for Wireless Emergency Alerts.

The Federal Communications Commission calls WEA, first launched in 2012, an “essential” tool when it comes to warning the public about “dangerous weather, missing children and other critical situations.”

The FCC adds, “WEA is a public safety system that allows customers who own compatible mobile devices to receive geographically targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area. WEA enables government officials to target emergency alerts to specific geographic areas – lower Manhattan in New York, for example.”

Think of it like a box or triangle or whatever geographic shape you can imagine. Someone in an emergency management office draws that shape and, voila, anyone with a cell phone in that shape gets a specific alert.

In 2019, Boulder County applied for and was granted access to IPAWS. When the Marshall Fire started shortly before noon on December 30, 2021, the county had yet to activate it. “Would we have liked to have been done quicker? No doubt,” said Mike Chard, director of Boulder County’s Office of Emergency Management.

Mike Chard

We hit COVID… so the priority was dealing with saving lives in the county.

Mike Chard

With IPAWS and WEA not an option that day, Boulder County used a system that’s known as Everbridge. It’s, in essence, an opt-in system that allows cell phone users to sign up for alerts.

On the day of the Marshall Fire, only 24% of the county’s population had opted in a cell phone.

“The [Everbridge] system worked the way it’s intended to work,” Chard said. “Does it reach everybody because it’s opt in? … The answer is no.”

In Colorado and as of the summer, we found 15 counties aren’t prepared to use IPAWS on their own.

Boulder County has since finished the setup of its WEA system and has sent alerts for fires at least twice.

“We’ve gotten better since this fire,” Chard said. “We’ve implemented the system. We’ve used it already.”

6:38 PM
Code 10 Photography

As night falls, vast parts of Louisville continue to burn. This is the view from neighboring Superior.

2:20 AM
Estes Valley Fire Protection District

New Year's Eve | A skeleton of a house remains along Eldorado Drive in Superior.

12:59 PM
Code 10 Photography

New Year's Eve | Less than 24 hours after the fire, a snowstorm blankets much of Boulder County.

2:24 PM
Fort Lupton Fire Protection District

New Year's Eve | In parts of Louisville, firefighters had to evacuate their positions so quickly they left their firehoses behind.

12:51 PM
Jennifer Butler

New Year's Day | Two days after the fire, Jennifer Butler returns to St. Andrews Lane.


The Marshall Fire resulted in more than a thousand stories of loss. 9NEWS spent one year following three of those stories. The Chavez, Ferrington and Sherpa families each lost homes and spent the better part of 2022 working hard to rebuild not just their homes but their lives as well.


Produced by: Nelson Garcia, Tom Cole

Karma Sherpa ran a non-profit and mountaineering business out of his home in Superior. For years, he sent supplies and medical workers to his home country of Nepal to service an area with little resources and access to health care. Now, he and his wife, Dafuti, must deal with losing everything they owned when the Marshall Fire tore through the Sagamore Neighborhood.

They’re raising two kids, Sonam and Sonia, and have moved multiple times trying to find stability as they wait for their home to be rebuilt. Despite all their struggles, Karma believes this is just a new way to look at life. “I don’t feel at all that I don’t have anything. I feel that we have everything -- everything we need.”


Produced by: Angeline McCall, Foster Gaines

The Chavez family lost five homes to the Marshall Fire. Elsie Chavez raised her family there and has called Original Town in Superior home for the past 70 years. Her son Ted has stayed since childhood, along with Elsie's two sisters. When the Marshall Fire happened, they discovered that not one of the family's houses remained. With so much lost, most of the family have stayed under one roof as they have waited and worked towards rebuilding.

Before the fire, Ted considered moving out of Original Town. Afterwards, he and his family are determined Original Town is where they are meant to be.

"This is our life. This is all we know actually," said Elsie. The kids are asking, 'Do you want to move out?' I’m not moving out. Maybe when the good Lord comes for me, they can take me out. But right now I’m staying."


Produced by: Katie Eastman, Bryan Wendland

Katie and Nic Ferrington had just built what they thought was their forever home in the Spanish Hills neighborhood of Boulder County. After living in an RV for nearly a year with their two young girls and nine chickens, they were ready for the comforts of a house again. But just months after moving in, the Marshall Fire took it all away.

“You can’t imagine having lost everything and yet the fact that we’re doing it, and we’re going through it, and we’ve processed the emotions, and we’re pulling together closer as a family, I have no doubt wherever we end up in life we’re going to be just fine,” said Nic.

Like so many, they are underinsured but will rebuild anyway. The Ferringtons have been hopping from rental to rental in Boulder County, and eight of their chickens, who miraculously escaped, are being cared for by Luvin’ Arms Animal Sanctuary. On July 26, the Ferringtons received their build permit, and now they wait to schedule work to prep for a foundation.

Chris Wheeler


This project would not have been possible without the willingness of so many people to share so many of their stories, photos and videos.

With that in mind, we would encourage all of you to continue this conversation by sharing this project and sharing your own #MarshallFireStories

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