By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director
On December 30, 2021, hurricane-force winds fanned a small grass fire in Boulder County into an inferno that resulted in at least two fatalities and destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses, primarily in Louisville and Superior. It is not clear at this writing what sparked the Marshall Fire, but it does not appear to have been caused by electric utility lines or other equipment. In terms of property value, the Marshall Fire was the most destructive in Colorado history.
Colorado’s electric co-ops are acutely aware of the financial and emotional toll that wildfires impose on communities. In the last several years, several so-called “mega fires” — those that burn over 100,000 acres — have impacted many electric co-op service territories. These fires caused extraordinary damage and disrupted the lives of hundreds of families.
I know I speak for the entire Colorado electric co-op community when I say that we grieve along with those who lost family members (including pets), homes or businesses in the fire. While the Marshall Fire did not occur in the service territory of any Colorado electric co-op, it destroyed the homes of two employees of Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association, an electric co-op that provides wholesale power to 17 of Colorado’s 22 electric distribution co-ops.
While it’s difficult to find a silver lining in the face of this devastating event, it’s clear that the heroic actions of firefighters and other first responders saved many lives, homes, livestock and other property. Stories are surfacing of neighbors helping neighbors, from the Amazon delivery driver helping a family evacuate to the folks who kicked in a neighbor’s door to save the family pets. The stories of generosity and humanity continue today, with the unprecedented levels of financial support being contributed to various funds that support the victims of the fire.
Although the Marshall Fire did not directly impact electric co-op facilities, it did limit Xcel Energy’s capacity to deliver electricity and natural gas to some customers. When Xcel asked Tri-State for assistance, Tri-State worked with Mountain Parks Electric in Grand and Jackson counties to curtail power in parts of Mountain Parks’ service territory. This reduced demand on Xcel’s natural gas system. Colorado’s electric utilities may be in competition with one another, but they work cooperatively in the face of emergencies.
Electric co-ops live by a set of principles, the 7th of which is “cooperation among cooperatives.” This means we help each other out to serve the consumer-members at the end of the line. But as evidenced by Tri-State’s cooperation with Xcel during the Marshall Fire, it means more than that. It also means electric co-ops cooperate with other utilities, neighbors and communities whenever there is a need. We do it during storms; we do it during pandemics; we do it during fires.
In the days to come, there will undoubtedly be extensive discussions about what caused the Marshall Fire and what steps can be taken in the future to prevent similar tragedies. Colorado’s electric co-ops have long been concerned about the risks of wildfires in their service territories. While none of the recent large fires have been caused by power lines, electric co-ops are always aware of that risk and go to great lengths to mitigate the risk. We’re hopeful that during this legislative session, funds will be appropriated to help co-ops take further action to reduce the chance of wildfires.
As proud citizens of this great state, electric co-op employees, directors and consumer-members will always be willing to help their neighbors in difficult times. While much of Colorado’s electric co-op country may be culturally and politically different than Boulder County, in times of crisis we come together to support each other as Coloradans.
We are all Boulder County.
Kent Singer is the executive director of CREA and offers a statewide perspective on issues affecting electric cooperatives. CREA is the trade association for your electric co-op, the 21 other electric co-ops in Colorado and its power supply co-op.