FEMA Region 8 Building Science Specialist Sean McGowan works in the Mitigation Division and serves as the regional earthquake program manager. Below he shares more about the work his team did after the 2021 Marshall fire and how he works to mitigate the impact of future wildfires.
“I never thought this would happen here.”
This is a sentence we hear quite often from disaster survivors while working in emergency management. On Dec. 30, 2021, it did happen here. Extremely dry conditions coupled with hurricane-force winds, gave rise to the Marshall Fire.
On that day, I found myself rapidly going through the steps I often suggest to others staring down the unthinkable: gather family medications and cash, fill the gas tank, take pictures of valuables to make insurance claims smoother, etc. All of this was done beneath clouds glowing orange in the nighttime sky as they reflected the light of the advancing fire. While I was fortunate to be spared, many in our Denver FEMA office knew someone who was impacted by this grassfire that turned into an urban conflagration in Superior, Louisville, and Boulder County.
The Marshall Fire received a federal disaster declaration, making federal assistance available to Boulder County and its communities. When a nationally significant, intensively destructive, or unique disaster strikes, FEMA may deploy a Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT). This team is generally comprised of local FEMA staff, state emergency management officials, private sector engineering and land use subject matter experts, and local academic researchers with familiarity with the hazards affecting local communities. As a rare urban wildfire, the Marshall Fire was a perfect candidate to research.
FEMA’s response and recovery efforts are focused on those impacted by the current disaster, but as someone who works in mitigation on the MAT team, my goal is different. I seek to make those impacts less severe for those who face the NEXT disaster.
In mid-August we completed a week of field study to try and draw some conclusions about how the fire impacted structures and identify lessons learned in the process. This work included visits to burn areas, looking at photos of burned structures, and extensive interviews with firefighters, homeowners, local leaders and others who dealt with the fire and its aftermath.
In the short term, we will be releasing fact sheets to highlight straightforward and cost-effective mitigation steps homeowners and communities can take to reduce their fire risk. Some initial examples of best practices include: swapping wood mulch for river rock or xeriscaping, replacing the 5 feet of wooden fence closest to a building with fire-resistant materials, placing screens on vents, and enclosing spaces below wooden decks to prevent ember buildup.
The survivors I spoke with in the field each had a story to share. These were punctuated by vivid memories of choosing which family photos and heirlooms to preserve, awakening children to load into the family car to (quite literally) flee their homes across burning fields, and returning to homes that smelled of smoke, suffered fire damage, or were no longer standing. This was my third MAT deployment representing FEMA, and while I find these heart-to-heart conversations understandably dark in subject matter, they are inspiring in how consistently they include uplifting notes of good deeds by neighbors, heroic and life-saving actions by first responders, strong support by local officials, and a resilient spirit of steadfast commitment to build back better.
When I’m asked what I do for a living, my most succinct answer is “My job is to ensure we never waste a disaster.” Each Marshall Fire survivor I spoke with in the field seemed comforted to hear that we were doing our best to ensure others might be spared the trauma of a similar disaster striking elsewhere. That reaction is what gets me up in the morning to advance the cause of disaster mitigation.