Silhouette of 4 firefighters from the back as they watch a blazing wildfire.

Lost Highways

When History Burns

Season 5, Episode 2

With the new reality of megafires in the West, look at what happens when history itself is destroyed and how we hold on to who and what we are when we lose the artifacts and records that tell our stories. We’ll take you from the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012 near the town of Manitou Springs to the Denver suburbs of Louisville and Superior, Colorado where the 2021 Marshall Fire wiped out not only hundreds of homes and businesses, but also the entire Superior history museum, along with centuries of artifacts, archives, and community memories.

Guests: Jennifer Balch. Sam Bock, Lincoln Bramwell, Larry Dorsey, Jason Herbert, Bob Mccool, Fawn Amber Montoya, Errol Waligarski (“Wally”), Karen Waligarski



When History Burns

Lost Highways from History Colorado is made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. And, by the Sturm Family Foundation, proud supporters of the humanities and the power of story-telling for more than twenty years.  
NOEL: I remember watching the long plume of black smoke rise from the top of Waldo Canyon in the summer of 2012. Everyone I worked with stood outside and studied it. It was big. And it was hot. And for the few of us who lived in Manitou Springs, it was close to our homes.

I had just moved to Manitou, a so-called “Wildland Urban Interface” – where the suburbs bleed into the forested foothills between the Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak. There’s hardly a house in town that isn’t surrounded by ponderosa pines, blue spruce and scrub oak. 

It was hard to tell what direction the fire was moving, but it seemed to be creeping toward the ridge above Manitou, just a mile or two away from the nearest homes along the hillside in Cedar Heights. 

We kept watching all afternoon as helicopters with giant water buckets flew in and out of the growing line of smoke, hopeful in that naive way that passes for certainty that fire teams would put it out in a matter of hours. 

But it grew, and it spread along the ridge, and within days, as winds picked up along the Front Range, we were ordered to evacuate. 

Like most people, I’ve always given passing thoughts to what I would grab in the event of a fire, if I could only take one thing: family photos, of course; artwork, maybe, but which one?; family jewelry, personal paperwork and passports? 

But when the evacuation order finally came, I was lucky.  All our valuables were still packed in the back of our little truck with the camper top from the move: our photo albums, all our artwork, and all our valuables. All we had to do was jump in the truck and drive away. 

A day later, hundreds of people in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood tucked up against the Front Range fled as 60 mile per hour wind gusts flooded the neighborhood with fire. Few people had time to do anything but watch the flames chase them in their rearview mirror as they tried to escape. Never mind what to grab, what to save. 

Whole swaths of the neighborhood were incinerated. A haunting photo of the inferno ran on the cover of the New York Times the next day. A hellscape of flame and black. 

A few days later, I was among the members of the media who were allowed to tour the site. It was a bluebird Colorado day without clouds or the faintest puff of smoke in the sky. 

I remember a dead magpie that had tried to tuck itself into the cracks of a rock wall, its tail feathers unsinged. It must’ve suffocated as the blaze passed overhead. 

There was the skeleton of a motorcycle on its side in a bed of ashes that looked like dinosaur bones at an archaeological dig. 

Cars that looked like they’d been bombed out in a war. 

A few lonely pine trees still green that had somehow remained unscathed. 

But mostly, there was nothing. Nothing but the empty foundations of homes full of charred memories as though they were little more than smoldering fire pits full of ash and charcoal from the night before. 

It was the first in a series of record-setting fires in Colorado that would change the way we think and feel about living so close to the natural surroundings that Colorado’s famous for. And by the time the Marshall Fire burned through more than eleven hundred homes outside of Boulder, Colorado in the winter of 2021, it was clear that not even the suburbs, miles away from the nearest mountains and forests, were safe. We had entered the age of megafires that burned so hot and so fast that we’d be lucky to escape with our lives, never mind our memories.   


NOEL: From History Colorado, this is Lost Highways: Dispatches from the Shadows of the Rocky Mountains. I’m NOEL Black. 

On this episode, we'll take a look at the new reality of megafires in the West and how communities are reckoning with it. We’ll also look at what happens when history itself is destroyed and how we hold on to who and what we are when we lose the artifacts and records that tell our stories.

We’ll take you from the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012 near the town of Manitou Springs to the Denver suburbs of Louisville and Superior, Colorado, where the 2021 Marshall Fires wiped out not only hundreds of homes and businesses, but also the entire Superior History Museum, along with centuries of artifacts, archives, and community memories. 


NOEL:  On the morning of December 30, 2021, an unseasonal windstorm with hurricane-force gusts of 115 miles per hour swept a grass fire through the suburban town of Louisville, neighboring Superior, and unincorporated Boulder County, Colorado.
By the time it was contained, the Marshall Fire had killed two people, burned over 6,000 acres, and destroyed more than a thousand homes and buildings. It was the most destructive fire in Colorado history, and it hadn’t happened in the middle of summer fire season, nor had it started in nearby mountain forests. It came in the dead of winter after the most prolonged period in Front Range history without measurable snowfall.
[CLIPS of Marshall Fire]

BOB MCCOOL: The jump between houses, somebody said, was eight seconds between when one house was on fire and the next one caught.

NOEL:  This is Bob MccooL, who was one of the people who lost his home in the Marshall Fire.
BOB MCCOOL: So I'm a town trustee and the liaison to the Historical Commission for the Board of Trustees. Moved to Superior in the summer of 1997. We bought our historic home. It was an 800 square foot miner's cabin. That was where we were planning to stay for...for a long time.

NOEL:  But December 30th was the last time he saw his house.
BOB MCCOOL: So that morning, late morning, I was in a meeting. We were all home. It was just gray smoke, just blowing as hard as you can imagine past the house, and as I was standing there looking at it, my wife and I started trying to figure out what to do because it was just, it was like apocalyptic out there, right. It was just crazy.

NOEL:  Within the first two hours, the fire commander on site ordered the evacuation of Superior, Louisville, and parts of Broomfield.

BOB MCCOOL: We grabbed the dog. We just run outside and I mean you know you're, your arms over your eyes because the ashes was blowing so hard. It's crazy. And we also realized that our neighbor across the street, Dan, he's 80, 80-something now. We grabbed him and put him in our car and then that next morning, I texted our mayor and asked if our house was still standing and he called and just told us ours and many other homes, most of the other homes in the original town were just gone.

NOEL: When it was all said and done, over a thousand homes were destroyed, twice as many as the Black Forest Fire, which had set the previous record for the most homes destroyed. 
BOB MCCOOL:  I just don't think anybody ever thought that a grass fire could, could cause something like that. I, I think we're all recognizing that it's, it's no longer it's, is it, you know, living in the mountains and keeping the trees cut back. It's, you know, we border open space that these, these grasslands can catch on fire and cause more damage than we ever thought. Just come up on a neighborhood and take it out in a matter of hours. 
NOEL: The twenty largest wildfires in the state of Colorado have all occurred in the last 23 years, and as the climate continues to change, it’s hard for any fire to hold the title of “most destructive fire in Colorado history” for long.

SAM BOCK:  With changing climates, drier climates, hotter climates, we know that wildfires are increasing in both intensity and frequency, and you know, we really started seeing this, you know, in the last thirty years in Colorado history, but I would say, just the, the amount of fire that we're dealing with on a yearly basis is just exploded.

NOEL: This is Sam Bock, Public Historian and the Publications Director for History Colorado. Not only has Sam written about Colorado fires, but he was also a volunteer firefighter.
SAM BOCK:  So, the South Canyon Fire of ‘94 was also known as the Storm King Fire because fourteen wildland firefighters died on Storm King Mountain near the town of Glenwood Springs when the fire unexpectedly changed direction and these firefighters were caught in this blaze that spread super quickly as the fire started burning uphill. It was one of the deadliest fires for firefighters in the country's history, but especially in Colorado history. And I think, you know, today it's really studied as, you know, what not to do, and is taught in firefighting school as an example of how things can go wrong just so quickly, even if everyone is, is doing what they're supposed to do.
NOEL: During just the 2012 fire season, when the Waldo Canyon Fire happened, Colorado experienced 1,498 wildfires, amounting to a devastating total of nearly 250,000 acres burned, which is almost the size of the whole city of Los Angeles.
SAM BOCK: The Waldo Canyon Fire is certainly one of the most notable in recent Colorado history. It started in June 2012 and was actually contained 100 percent by July 2012. But, in that month, over 340 homes were destroyed and US 24, a major highway, was closed for months, uh, it was just completely destroyed. It was the most destructive fire in Colorado history, as measured by the number of homes destroyed.
NOEL: But that record only stood for a year. The following summer, in 2013, the Black Forest Fire just north of Colorado Springs claimed two lives, destroyed more than 500 homes, and burned over 14,000 acres. And then the Marshall Fire in December, 2021 doubled that record, and caused an estimated two billion in damage. 
JENNIFER BALCH: My name is Jennifer Balch and I am the Director of the Environmental Data Science Innovation and Inclusion Lab at CU Boulder. 

NOEL: The Earth Lab in Boulder uses data analytics and research to understand environmental change. We visited the lab to try to understand the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in a historical context. 

JENNIFER BALCH: Fire is an integral part of us. It’s an integral part of our history. Our early hominid ancestors used fire over 3 million years ago. I'd challenge everyone to think about whether they could live without fire, even for a day. Combustion is a huge part of our society. We burn fossil fuels. We use fire to cook our food. Um, it's part of our, our cultural celebrations.

NOEL: For millennia, humans have depended on fire to survive, to eat, to drink, to go from point A to point B. We can't live without it, especially in the vast and hostile West. But as climate change continues to ratchet up the frequency of wildfires, will we be able to live WITH it?
JENNIFER BALCH: Yeah, we're seeing more than 300 percent increase in burned area across the West, and it is directly linked to increasing temperatures. Most of our records today are based on satellites and what we can see from space.
NOEL: Jennifer and the team at the Earth Lab use all sorts of historical data to analyze and predict the effect of climate change on future wildfires. They even use housing records from Zillow to look at homes in Wildland Urban Interfaces and what they're made of in order to estimate how vulnerable an area is. Starting with data from the 1970s, Earth Lab has analyzed tens of thousands of wildfires.
JENNIFER BALCH: We look at how fast they're moving, and we also look at what's in the way and what types of ecosystems are burning as well, whether they're forests or shrublands or grasslands. So yeah, a lot of our work is really focused on trying to understand patterns and more the modern day fire record from the last several decades and how things are changing and also how people are putting homes in harm's way.

NOEL: One of the biggest problems with wildfires, where humans are concerned, is that we keep building homes in the Wildland Urban Interface. It’s an appealing place to live because of the natural beauty, but it also puts homes dangerously close to forests and wild landscapes where fuel is plentiful and can ignite by anything from a lightning strike to a stray spark from a campfire.  
JENNIFER BALCH: And I think that's part of what our challenge has been throughout history, and wildfires, it takes three ingredients: we need an ignition source, we need fuels to burn and we need a dry climate. 

NOEL: These things are plentiful in the West, Jennifer says. And the conditions are only getting more favorable for fires like Waldo Canyon, Black Forest, or the Marshall Fire. 

JENNIFER BALCH: We know that it takes just a little bit of warming to lead to a lot more burning. So we know that climate change is implicated in how our fires are getting more intense and more extreme. 

NOEL: And now, there’s a year-round danger of ignition, which used to be limited to warmer months. 

 JENNIFER BALCH: We essentially provide the sparks for fires 365 days a year. So the ecosystems that we live in here in Colorado, in particular, and across the West, are flammable for good chunks out of the year. And we just don't think of them as flammable, like our open spaces.

NOEL: For a wildfire disaster, the final ingredient is those homes and people in the way.
JENNIFER BALCH: Our work has shown that over 59 million homes have been within a kilometer of a wildfire boundary over a roughly two-decade period. So we're living with a lot of wildfire risk today, and most people don't even know it.
NOEL: Beyond the loss of life and property, fire poses a threat to our history as well, and with it, our very conception of who we are. Think of the burning of the library at Alexandria, or the 2008 Universal Studio fires that destroyed the only existing copies of countless films and music master tapes. So many records were destroyed in that fire that we still don’t even know the full extent of what was lost. And when a history museum itself burns, all that’s left are our unreliable memories of what might have been there before. 
FAWN AMBER MONTOYA: I most recently think about the fire in Brazil, um, that ended up destroying the archival collection of indigenous languages and so most of what was destroyed in the fire in Brazil was the languages that had been preserved, and some of them had become extinct, right? So it's languages that were spoken in the 1600s and evidence that those languages that were spoken in the 1600s are written about in the 1600s that are no longer in existence.

NOEL: This is Fawn Amber Montoya, the Associate Dean of the Honors College at James Madison University. She’s a history professor and a scholar of the Southwest United States in the 20th century. 

FAWN AMBER MONTOYA: And so, the fire then destroyed any record that existed. So, they just didn't become extinct in the 1600s but now with the, the fire that destroyed those archives, then there is no evidence that they ever existed. So in the next hundred years, they're also then erased from historical memory.

NOEL: I asked Fawn Amber Montoya about other examples of fires that have destroyed historical memories and she mentioned the fire that destroyed the 1890 United States Census records. In June of 1890, the U.S. conducted its most extensive census to date. But in 1921, a fire in the U.S. Department of Commerce destroyed most of the data.
FAWN AMBER MONTOYA: I think the most important part about the 1890 census is that when you look at the history of the United States, this is, um, a period of migration and immigration.  Because of the second industrial revolution, you have people that are entering urban areas, people that are moving across the United States as the West becomes more industrialized, and you also start having a large influx of people that are immigrating from throughout the world.

NOEL: Another important aspect of the 1890 census was the self-identification of race.
FAWN AMBER MONTOYA: Also you'll see what people are going to be labeling themselves as, or what the census taker is going to be labeling them as. So it helps me as a historian be able to get a better understanding of how is the U.S. government labeling these people, but also what are the people themselves, um, what cultures are they maintaining over time.

NOEL: Fawn Amber Montoya says that when all we have to rely on is memory, only the dominant narrative survives, which often serves to perpetuate the myths and half-truths that keep us divided.

FAWN AMBER MONTOYA: So that then, you don't understand that, then are these communities able to live together in the 1890s? That's a model for us, I think, very much in 2023 and 2024, is that welcoming immigrants is not a new thing to this nation. It shouldn't be a new thing to this nation. Being able to work across different languages shouldn’t be a new thing.  Working across religious differences isn’t a new thing. And so I think, if we sort of think about, if we had the 1890s and had that clear evidence, this is, this is not new to us, this should be American culture. And I think sometimes we lose that when we assume that who lives next door to us is who's always lived next door to us.  And that's not the story, that's not really the story of the United States.
NOEL: Another historic fire with long-lasting ramifications was the 1973 personal records fire in St. Louis, Missouri that destroyed between 16 to 18 million official military personnel files. Established in 1956 to enhance archival efficiency by consolidating various agencies, the National Personnel Records Center played a pivotal role in the storage and management of service records for the military. 
FAWN AMBER MONTOYA: So I think it's really important, especially when you think about veterans benefits. They had to prove their military service and so when they go back to … those records and they don’t exist, then they can’t get in to a housing facility that is specifically for veterans. Or that if they, as they come to retire, and they went to go to see if they have access to military pensions, and then they don't have the evidence for that. So it ends up impacting Americans, specifically World War II and then Vietnam veterans, if they're unable to prove their military service or what ranks that they left the military, then that does have a financial impact on their family members. I think that, that's something that directly impacts American lives, um, and especially their financial, um, bottom line.
NOEL: Even 50 years later, there’s no way of knowing a record is missing until it’s requested. About 80% of Army and Air Force records were completely lost, records that impact medical care, benefits and military honors.
FAWN AMBER MONTOYA: So then those people, if they're destroyed in the fire, they end up getting erased.

NOEL: Nearly two years after the Marshall Fire, we traveled to Superior, Colorado and spoke to several members of the Historical Commission about the town’s History Museum that was lost. 
LARRY DORSEY: My name is Larry Dorsey and I am with the Historical Commission here in Superior. I’ve been the chairperson of the Commission for quite a few years now. When the town came to be, this was, um, in 1860, was a, strictly a rural place and so the first settlers were all farmers and, uh, had pastures and grew various kinds of crops that would be used to be sent off to the, to the hard rock miners off in, uh, the mountains here in Boulder County and Clear Creek County.
NOEL: In 1864, coal was discovered on the Hake family farm, and the town was named after its supposed “superior” coal.
LARRY DORSEY: The mine is on the Northern Colorado Coalfield, which runs from about west of here in Boulder County clear out to, uh, Weld County. So the mining really, uh, pushed the population of the town itself up, and in addition to that, there was a mine camp where miners and their families could live, owned by the mine company. And our museum was one of those mine camp houses that had been moved off site back in the 1940s probably, and then moved back to Superior from Broomfield.

NOEL: Most of the museum’s artifacts had been donated over many years from community members. Among many other things, they included clothes and headlamps that the miners had worn; canary cages; composite photographs featuring graduating classes of the miners’ children who grew up in Superior; a scale model diorama of the coal mine; a pot-bellied stove from the original camp; and more. Larry spoke about a baseball jersey that was lost in the fire.
LARRY DORSEY: Well, back in the day in Colorado, and I assume all throughout the United States in small towns and rural communities, they had what they called town team baseball. In this case, for Superior, the team was sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, which was the owner of the industrial mines so this, there'd be the industrial mine would play the Simpson mine team from Lafayette, let's say, for example. And they had tournaments and in addition to the jersey, we had a trophy. So that also got lost in the fire.

NOEL: I also spoke to Wally, one of the founders of the Superior Historical Commission, about a piece of artwork created at the local mining school that was lost in the fire.

ERROL WALIGARSKI: My name is Errol Waligarski, but I go by Wally, and uh, one of the teachers took some old flour sacks and they cleaned them and sewed them together, and then she drew out a bunch of, uh, airplanes and trains and et cetera on it and had the kids come in and color it all in with crayons. And so we had stretched that and it was under a, uh, in a frame with glass on the front and it was hanging on the wall. So, I guess that was kind of my favorite.
NOEL: Wally and his wife Karen Waligarski have lived in Superior for 35 years and have been involved in documenting the town’s history for 25. 

ERROL WALIGARSKI: Well, uh, I went down to the town hall. There's, uh, some old buildings back behind the town hall and I wanted to go in and see 'em because I was a little bit interested in the history. And they told me that it was not open to the public, uh, the town manager and one of the town staff and I, uh, asked them then if, if they had, uh, thought about starting a historical commission. And they said, no, would you be interested? And, uh, I hesitated about three seconds and said, okay. And so that's where we actually first started it.

KAREN WALIGARSKI: I've been a member of the Historical Commission since about 1999, 2000. Um, my husband Wally started it and at that point they had someone that was their secretary who, um, became ill and they needed somebody to step in and Wally said, would you consider being secretary, just until, um, we can get someone else. And I said, oh, sure, I'll step in for a little while. Well, 20 years later, I was still a member of the Commission, so I've been with them almost since the beginning.

NOEL: Wally and Karen Waligarski are both originally from the Midwest, and had to build their knowledge of Superior’s history from scratch. They learned a lot from two members of the museum who had grown up in the mining camp. 

KAREN WALIGARSKI: And their fathers were miners. And so those two people were really valuable to us because they knew the history of the industrial mine. They knew what life was like back in the 1940s, 1930s when the mine was going on. So they were really valuable to us.

NOEL: Wally and Karen Waligarski forged relationships with the people who had grown up in the mining camps and knew the town best. 

KAREN WALIGARSKI: And we had, um, one of our older members that grew up in the mine camp remembered the schools that were on that property. Um, and he actually made from popsicle sticks, um, replicas of those two schools, and he did it very, very accurately. And he built it such that you could take the roof off and see what was in the classroom. And our second grade field trips, the kids used to love to look at those old schools and take the roof off and see what was inside.

NOEL: It was objects like these that hurt the most to lose. Not just educational objects, but artifacts imbued with the memories, handiwork, and humanity of the people who made Superior what it is today.

NOEL: A few years after starting the Historical Commission in the late ‘90s, a real estate developer was going to tear down the old house from the mining camp. Wally and Karen Waligarski got the town to intervene. 

KAREN WALIGARSKI: And we were very fortunate to have the town step up and say, well, we will bring it over and we'll make it, help you make it into a museum. And so, um, one of my favorite memories is bringing that over and forming the museum, and this happened at about, oh, in the period of 2006 to 2009.  It was brought over, put on a, a basement and we, it became a museum.

NOEL: Larry Dorsey remembers the moment he found out about the destruction of the museum. 

LARRY DORSEY: Oh, it was just, um, one of those punches in the gut kind of a thing. I got a call from our liaison, “Museum's gone, Larry,” and drove over there to it and this awful feeling just looking at that and understanding that everything was gone and all this twisted metal. The total devastation from that fire was just, uh, staggering. 
NOEL: Karen Waligarski was hopeful that records from the museum might have survived. 
KAREN WALIGARSKI: There were two, um, filing cabinets down in the basement. The filing cabinet survived. When they were bringing the debris up, we were anxious to see what was in the filing cabinets. All the papers that were in the filing cabinets fused together. So we really were not able to salvage much of anything out of the debris. So, you know, we were devastated. We had lost all of our artifacts.

NOEL: As with so many other fires that have destroyed priceless historical artifacts and cultural memories, the Historical Commission in Superior didn’t even have a complete record of everything they lost. They didn’t know what they didn’t know. This is the importance of the kind of archival work that Larry, Wally and Karen Waligarski do – it isn't just so people can find the information; it's also so we know what we're missing when it disappears.  

LARRY DORSEY: These things are happening in more frequency and more intensity these days. And it just, uh, keeps you concerned about the future. And, uh, in our little town, there were 33 houses in original Superior that would qualify to be landmarked, which is to say they're 50 years older or more, and now there's three. And so, there's this sense of loss that comes with this, that you can't replicate a house that was built in 1908.

NOEL: Larry says his concern for the future is how these increasingly intense natural disasters threaten our ability to document and remember who we are.

LARRY DORSEY: Well, I think now our missions may be even more, more dramatic because right now there's only a handful of people living in Superior who have roots that go back a generation or two more. One reason why I got involved in this local history in this particular town is because I understand that so many people who move into Colorado in general and into Superior specifically aren't from Colorado. So they're coming from California or Texas or Illinois or something and don't have the history. 

NOEL: The Superior History Museum was also an integral part of the educational curriculum for the local elementary school.

LARRY DORSEY: So every field trip, the kids got to be locked up in jail. And they just had, they just got so excited about it, “When are we going go to jail, when can we get in the jail?”. So that was a lot of fun. 

NOEL: And it’s memories like these that stick with the kids for decades. And when an entire museum goes up in flames, these are often the only things that survive. 

LARRY DORSEY: You could just tell, you know, the kind of planting the seeds of respect for the past in those youngsters' minds. And one of our current members of the Historical Commission was one of the kids on the second grade field trip once.

NOEL: The museum in the mining-era house consisted of two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. The complete house measured twenty four feet by twenty four feet and the children liked to walk through the house and imagine what it would have been like to live in such a small space crammed together with the rest of their family. Here’s Wally again. 

ERROL WALIGARSKI: It's something that's can, it can't be recovered. I mean, yes, we can get, we're getting new things in, so to speak, but the part that was actually part of the town is gone forever. 

NOEL: Larry sees the tangible loss of the museum and the history it contained as part of a larger issue currently facing our nation.

LARRY DORSEY: One of the concerns I have presently is what appears to be a general American-wide lack of understanding of history that we're seeing in our national politics, in our international politics, not just local. And so it’s just, I guess it’s the mission is to do everything we can to get good information out to people so they can sift through it and make intelligent decisions.

NOEL: Historical societies in small towns, often run by volunteers on a shoestring budget, are vitally important to preserving history that’s often overlooked, or falls by the wayside.

LARRY DORSEY: I guess what's happening is that it's falling more and more upon the Historical Commission to, to keep the story alive because the survivors who are still in the original town are on the elderly side, and uh, won't be around forever.

NOEL: Sam Bock elaborated about the importance of community museums like the one lost in Superior. 

SAM BOCK: The local historical resources aren't always the most popular, but they are important. It's the loss of a community’s story. It's the loss of the collective past of living people. To the extent that we look to the past, we're always trying to answer the question of who we are.

NOEL: Community archives are often in the most danger when it comes to fires and other natural disasters. Volunteer museums simply don’t have the proper budget or means to protect their records. 

SAM BOCK: Because you're not just worried about it burning, but you're also worried about being damaged by whatever they used to put out the fire. So, it's a really complicated problem. And it's also a really expensive problem. And so many of these smaller community archives, you know, places that have mom and pop’s papers from the ‘50s,right? They just don't have the funding to build massive fireproof, water resistant, hail protected buildings where you can keep these records.

NOEL: It’s hard to measure the lasting impact of losing the chance to understand ourselves historically, especially at the most local level. Written genealogical records, for example – often housed in such community museums – are not only rare, but can unlock profound questions and answers about individuals’ pasts. 

SAM BOCK: For the longest time, genealogy was contained in family stories. It was contained in oral histories. And It's really relatively recently that your average person has been able to access these genealogical records going back several generations in any form other than family stories.

NOEL: And those records and oral histories are more than a connection to our past. They’re part of who we are, who our grandparents were, and who our grandchildren might be. 

SAM BOCK: And, in America, we have long searched for something that is, something to give us a deep root, something to give us some kind of deep connection and answer the question who we are as a people. And it's made even more complicated by the fact that, for a lot of the people who were brought to this country forcefully, especially Black people whose families were brought to this country as slaves, as chattel slaves, that history is fractured.

NOEL: And at a time when some of the most uncomfortable truths about our past are being written out of textbooks, regulated out of classrooms, and contested across the nation, the truth itself is increasingly up for debate. In the past two years, 122 educational gag order bills have been introduced in 33 states. Physical artifacts, archives, and the stories and memories that go with them are essential to making sure entire chapters of history aren’t deliberately altered. 

SAM BOCK: When a lot of the narratives of this nation are being tested, you know, this irrefutable documented history is exceptionally important because so much of the stuff that happened in our past as a country has been, you know, understandably uncomfortable, to say the least, for a lot of people.

NOEL: In other words, historical artifacts and documents provide a basis for establishing facts, even if they come from records that people want to forget, ignore, or deliberately try to suppress. 

SAM BOCK: For example, the petition that, uh, early Coloradans in 1860 wrote to the President and the Congress asking them to unilaterally extinguish Native land rights without asking any Native peoples, um, you know, that's a matter of historical fact. I can pull out the newspaper that contains that petition. 


NOEL: One of the reasons the Marshall Fire was so shocking—why it took everyone by surprise, including the museum’s caretakers—was that nobody in Louisville or Superior really thought of themselves as vulnerable to wildfire. With a changing climate threatening our history in this way, we need to adapt to the idea that areas we once thought of as safe from these kinds of disasters might not be for much longer. Which is why this story isn’t only about historical preservation, but about land management as well.  Here’s Lincoln Bramwell, Chief Historian for the United States Forest Service and author of the book Wilderburbs.  

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: If you're trying to understand fire management policy today and, you know, what we're doing to manage fires nationally, you really go back to the summer of 1910 and we call them the Great Northern Rockies fires and there were some fires that moved out of eastern Washington, moved across northern Idaho and into western Montana and burned a little over three and a quarter million acres in about 48 hours.

NOEL: The U.S. Forest Service agency was officially founded in 1905, and oversees 190 million acres of federally owned land. But the agency also supports the other 700 million acres of forests and grasslands that are privately, locally and state owned as well. In 1910, one of the driest years in recorded history, hundreds of fires burned across the Northern Rockies that summer. President Taft mobilized over 4,000 soldiers to help battle the fires that burned over five million acres. 

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: This was a massive conflagration, killed 78 firefighters, burned over several kind of smaller frontier towns, massive loss of life. The U.S. Forest Service was five years old at the time and was trying to, uh, define its mission. That summer galvanized the American people, the scientific community, and the Federal government and the lawmakers.

NOEL: The budget for the Forest Service was doubled that year, and fire suppression was added to its mission. The agency declared an all-out war on fire.

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: And the scientific community at the time was like, yeah, fire, uh, destroys, they would use words like that and we didn't really have a complete understanding of fire's role in the ecosystem, we just saw a massive loss of life, and timber was viewed as capital. I mean, it was a vitally important natural resource that, uh, when it burned, they just viewed that as a loss of something valuable. So that really kind of set the stage and shaped American wildfire policy for well over a half century.

NOEL: The Forest Service’s policy for decades was to suppress all fires. It was labeled a “put-it-out” policy and all wildfires had to be extinguished by 10am the next day. But the more fires they put out, the more fuel there was to burn. And the need for more firefighters grew. 

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: And, in 1941 and 1942 and ‘43, if, if you were healthy enough to, to fight a forest fire out in the woods, you had been drafted and you were part of the military and, and, and working in the World War II war effort at some point.

NOEL: World War II disrupted all industries, including firefighting. Women who had served as fire lookouts joined firefighting crews on the ground, and conscientious objectors served as smokejumpers who parachuted in. But, even with the new labor force, the United States still had a severe shortage of firefighters. 

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: One thing that happened during World War II was Japan wanted to create kind of chaos and fear. They didn't have the material capacity to invade Western U.S.

NOEL: So the Japanese military launched a series of incendiary devices attached to balloons to float across the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to create fires in the Western National Forest. 

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: And hopefully, you know, sow fear and chaos amongst the population. The government knew this and they specifically, like, really tried to keep it very, very quiet that it took place.

NOEL: In an effort to educate the public about the dangers of fires amid all these fears, and to help stop the spread of wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service created a public fire prevention campaign with friendly faces in 1944.  

[Clip - Smokey Bear Song]

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: And they started using different, uh, animal characters and, famously, they, they had a contract with Disney to use the Bambi characters, but Disney only would sign a contract that they could use it for one year. It was successful enough that they thought, okay, that actually kind of resonated, let’s go draw our own, and they started drawing these humanized bear figures, and let’s put some pants on him and maybe a hat, and that was, evolved into Smokey Bear. 

NOEL: Smokey Bear is the longest-running public service announcement campaign in the history of the United States. The campaign has been so effective and so well-loved, that there have been relatively few changes in the 80 years since its creation.  In 2001, the slogan was tweaked minimally from “Remember...only YOU can prevent forest fires” to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” 

But even as the Smokey Bear campaign stayed the same, the Forest Service’s fire prevention policies and tactics evolved with the rapid advances in scientific knowledge over the second half of the 20th Century. 

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: And it was only over the course of the next century that the science kind of caught up with fire’s natural role in, in ecosystems and, and create a more nuanced policy towards wildfire management, uh, and how it can be a benefit to the ecosystem as well as at the same time kind of a threat to maybe a human community. 

NOEL: The 1978 Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act consolidated a broad range of state and private forestry programs. It contained policies to manage and conserve land in sustainable ways. 

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: The Park Service kind of led the way with a policy change in 1968 called the Leopold Report as the shorthand. Starker Leopold was a famous wildlife biologist at UC Berkeley and had been commissioned by the Park Service to kind of, all right, let's do an evaluation of the health of our parks, including, you know, the, the flora and fauna. And he was part of, and aware of, ‘cause some of his colleagues at Berkeley were doing some of the most innovative work on fire’s role in ecosystems and for ecosystem health and he, you know, kind of wrote a report that led to them changing their formal policy of “All fire bad, suppress all of them” to give flexibility to fire managers and park service, you know, superintendents and their officers to recognize that some fires might be out in a place that’s not threatening human lives, and it’s probably doing some ecological good. 

NOEL: Leopold’s work, known as Wildlife Management in the National Parks, was instrumental in changing policy, but some have criticized it for ignoring historical land management. Thinking long term, says Bramwell, is essential to any forest management policy. 

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: I try to bring the contextual and long term thinking and looking to identify change over time, in long spans of time, the way, the way historians think, and, um, and then tell narrative stories around those changes. That’s part of our organic act. Our mission is to make these forests sustainable for generations. And so we instinctively kind of think over long spans of time, and as a historian, that's what we naturally do.

NOEL: Like historians, the Forest Service sees time differently than most people. They think in terms of tree time, the lifespan of a tree. They’re looking at how things change over one hundred years or more. 

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: And that's not true for the public or political leaders. They're thinking in like Twitter time, time spans, like instantaneous messages, fix this, make that better, or don't do this or stop this. And tree time doesn't operate on that short of a scale.

NOEL: And many in forest management and wildland firefighting are beginning to look at indigenous ways of thinking about wildfires. 


JASON HERBERT: For the longest time, scientists, Western scientists, were looking at the ecosystems here in North America, wondering how things operated and never giving Native people their due for creating and managing these ecosystems.

NOEL: This is Jason Herbert. He’s a historian and a Tribal Liaison for the United States Forest Service in Colorado that oversees the Pike National Forest, San Isabel National Forest, Comanche National Grasslands, and Cimarron National Grasslands. 

JASON HERBERT: When I talk to tribal members, whether it's here or whether it's in Colorado or in Florida or elsewhere, the answer is always the same. We've always been here. And as long as Native people have been here, they've always been managing the landscape, caretaking the landscape, and fire has always been a really important aspect of that management strategy.

NOEL: The insights gleaned from indigenous land management practices have slowly been recognized by agencies, scientists, and researchers. 

JASON HERBERT: There's a recognition within the United States Forest Service that these forest service lands, these forests, these streams, these mountains, these grasslands, these are all Native lands.  These still belong to indigenous people, and we have an obligation to make sure that we are managing, that we are stewarding these landscapes in ways that are appropriate to Native people.  And that means actively working with tribes, with elders, and employing traditional ecological knowledge, Native ways of understanding and managing the landscapes, to the benefit not only of the forest but really for everyone.

NOEL: Jason Herbert believes these ways of understanding are fundamental to our survival, whether it’s understanding landscapes, communities, or our history.

JASON HERBERT: We're the summation of the lives who came before us for generations and generations, no matter where those lives came from, whether they came from England or Egypt or North America, or other places, and archives are important to that. So we talk a lot about these great fires throughout history that have destroyed not only archives and libraries, but entire towns. 

NOEL: When our history is destroyed, we lose opportunities to learn about things like land management from the people who know it best and successfully cared for the region for thousands of years before European settlers arrived. The worldviews, histories, and traditions of many indigenous communities have often been passed down through generations in spoken word. And in these cultures, fire has also played a much different role. 

JASON HERBERT: Fires are actually part of that storytelling tradition because the production of fire helps to tell a story of where people came from, of what they do on the land. And as elders pass on fire knowledge, pass on traditional ecological knowledge, they're not just passing on the story, uh, they're not just passing on techniques of game management, uh, wildlife management, uh, fire control and suppression. They're also passing on stories of who people are and why they do things. 

NOEL: The U.S. Forest Service is incorporating indigenous fire stewardship by doing intentional controlled burns and by utilizing knowledge from indigenous stories in their land management policies and practices. 

JASON HERBERT: So one of the things that we're really trying to do first and foremost is tell stories of the forest, of the grasslands, that incorporate Native people into those stories. These are indigenous landscapes, right? So we're trying to make sure that we do that. And doing that means reaching out to tribal members to reaching out to tribes to tell stories from their perspectives.

NOEL: The U.S. Forest Service has been in existence for a little over a century, while Native people have been managing land since time immemorial. And long-term understanding of ecosystems takes time to develop.

JASON HERBERT: This knowledge of the landscape is a real labor to go out, to experiment, to create, to watch, to understand, to observe all of these things. So fires themselves become a sort of archive in indigenous traditions. 

NOEL: In addition to recognizing the importance of fire in indigenous land management, another pivotal transformation within the U.S. Forest Service agency occurred in the 2000s. Here’s Chief Historian Lincoln Bramwell again.

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: The efforts that the Forest Service had to make to suppress wildfires had reached kind of a breaking point by the 2000s. And we were, the Forest Service was spending more than half of its budget on fire suppression alone. 

NOEL: In 1995, the Forest Service spent about 16% of its budget on suppressing fires. By 2015, they spent $1.2 billion, 52% of its budget. Budgeting for the Forest Service worked differently than an organization like FEMA, which could utilize emergency funding. 

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: If it was a really bad fire year, more of the Forest Service budget would just get kind of sucked into fire and it was very unpredictable and would suck money away from fire prevention efforts we could do to help mitigate next year's fires. There's such a proliferation of people living in places that are much more susceptible to wildfire. And that's kind of the challenge of wildfire management today is, there’s a lot more values at risk. 

NOEL: Again, the most dangerous areas people are moving to are classified as Wildland Urban Interfaces, the zone that transitions between developed land and wilderness. Bramwell says areas can be thought of as concentric circles, starting with the center of a town. 

LINCOLN BRAMWELL:  This could be any city of any size. It could be your smallest rural town. There's Main Street, you know, that's your urban core. And, uh, and then from there you have its suburban ring – you're out of the, the downtown area and you're in the suburb, right? And Wildland Urban Interface is that next ring where houses keep moving out, but they're more dispersed and they're more interspersed with vegetation. 

NOEL: About a third of the population, nationally, live in houses situated in the Wildland Urban Interface. Those homes are nestled into forests and natural vegetation—the fuel needed to start a fire. 

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: Now you have to view that, that gorgeous view shed and the natural vegetation as also–these are fuels that can carry a small fire right up to my doorstep and I need actually space between my home and maybe these flammable materials.

NOEL: A major difference between the homes that are in the Wildland Urban Interface now and the isolated homesteads in the past is mainly one of fuel. 

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: They were clearing all that land around either for grazing or for agriculture or they kept clearing it because that was the closest wood they could cut down to fuel, to heat their home and cook their food with and so it had a natural barrier against just about any size fire. We also understand how much more important it is to maintain healthy ecosystems so that that will help reduce risk of like a large fire that, um, you know, burns and threatens and, um, takes out large, large amounts of property. 


NOEL: I asked Jennifer Balch at the Earth Lab what we can do to try and mitigate the dangers of wildfires, especially now that suburban neighborhoods outside the Wildland Urban Interface have proven susceptible to megafires. 
JENNIFER BALCH: One of the hopeful points is that there's a lot we can actually do to increase our resilience and resistance to fires, um, in terms of how we're building our communities and our homes.

NOEL: Policy and legislation need to be improved, says Balch.

JENNIFER BALCH: And then on the incentive side of things, you know, we have floodplain maps that direct insurance and development decisions, but we don't have the same for fire at a national scale. Um, and as insurance companies are pulling out of entire states because of, you know, the wildfire risk, we need to be talking about what a national fire insurance program looks like and supporting that at, at the Federal and state level so that homeowners aren't left without an insurance policy on their homes.

NOEL: Many insurance companies in Colorado’s high country have refused to renew home insurance policies after the $2 billion Marshall Fire. Governor Polis enacted the Fair Access to Insurance Requirements, establishing it as a government-managed insurance of last resort. However, this initiative is not slated to be up and running until January, 2025.

JENNIFER BALCH: There are, um, also ways that we can think about the constellation of homes in neighborhoods and using road networks as fire breaks. There's a lot we can do to improve a home's resistance to fire.

[Scenetape of Superior - construction noise]

NOEL: There’s construction everywhere in the town of Superior now as families rebuild. I asked Bob Mccool, the town trustee who was among those who lost their homes in the Marshall Fire, about the recovery effort. 
BOB MCCOOL: It's a new experience for all of us. I mean, that's why I think we're all sort of trying to figure out what, how, how to, how to protect the homes now that we didn't think needed protecting before.

NOEL: Part of that experience has been community-wide debates about exactly how to rebuild the town in such a way that this doesn’t happen again.

BOB MCCOOL: All these differing opinions of why you should do it this way, or we don't want a fence that can burn, and, you know, people who are really nervous about putting anything in that could potentially catch on fire, compared to what it costs to do that, because the costs were just exorbitant, to, to accomplish this. Do you require everybody to build a brick home that's up against open space or use fireproof materials? I mean, it was a long time till we finally got the fence code, you know, finalized.

NOEL: In the two years since the Marshall Fire, Superior has issued permits for 247 of the 395 structures lost within their town limits. They’ve issued certificates of occupancy for 86 homeowners. And the majority of the town’s population is rebuilding. But Bob says about 30% of the town’s population have sold their lots because they can’t see themselves back in a home that burned, or could burn again. And that’s a loss of even more living history and community.

BOB MCCOOL:  And then you lose a lot of people because they're like, I, I can't build to a code where my house could never catch on fire in 110 mile an hour wind storm with a grass of three foot high on fire getting blown… I mean, we had no idea, but now we know, and we know how easy it is for, you know, a half a mile wide path of grass to just come up on a neighborhood and take it out in a matter of hours, right?

NOEL: But McCool remains hopeful about the future of Superior. Part of that hope is that the town government voted unanimously to rebuild the museum. 

BOB MCCOOL: The way this community responded, there's so much good that's happening because of this, and I think looking at that and seeing that and recognizing it is going to help anybody, you know, get through that day, right? We're all there for each other.
NOEL: I asked McCool if there was anything that he wished he could’ve taken from his home on the morning he and his family had to evacuate.
BOB MCCOOL: I had things in my car which was great. Things I’d left in my car to and from work. But that’s, yeah everything else was just lost. A beautiful guitar – my first guitar that I bought in 1978 that, you know, I wish I’d grabbed but – you know. Pictures… 

NOEL: However, he  did recover one photo a few days after the fire when they went back to survey the destruction of their home. 

BOB MCCOOL: My wife looked over towards the chain link fence that was still standing and saw what looked like a photograph and, or, and there was like a note on the back of this thing and she's like, oh, that must belong to somebody. Let me go get that, and she, uh, she picked it up and on the back was a heart and the word “love” and flipped it over and it was our son Jackson in fifth grade with his first grade buddy at the elementary school, picture completely intact with just a little burned edges around the edge, just blown up against the fence like this was two days after, two or three days after the fire, still perfectly intact and, you know, must have blown out of the chest that was on that side of the house. So that was, uh, that was a cool find.

NOEL: For those of us who live in the Wildland Urban Interface and got lucky during the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012, there wasn’t much comfort. It’s always been a question of if, not when, a fire would threaten Manitou. Some people cut their scrub oak back, or trim their trees away from their houses, but most everyone who lives here made a deal with this particular devil when we moved in. It’s worth it to live this close to the mountains and the forest, the tall grasses and weeds that dry up and turn into tinder each fall. 

I’ve lived here now for more than a decade, and I’ve long since unpacked my lucky truck full of memories and valuables. I don’t know anymore what I might try and save when the inevitable megafire of our warming future swallows our town and our history.  

As I reported this episode, I asked the people we interviewed the one item they would save if their house was on fire. Almost all of them said they’d save family photos and documents – the objects that help us tell our stories to ourselves and those we share our lives with. Fawn Amber Montoya, for her part, was clear that she’d rescue a suitcase of her father’s papers from World War II, but not because it tells his story, or hers, specifically, though it does both of those, too. That suitcase contains the story of her whole community. 
FAWN AMBER MONTOYA: It's his personal archive of his time in World War II. And so the reason it's important is, and again, this is about my Colorado lens, is that, um, there was many Coloradans that volunteered, um, during World War II. And I, my, what I write about, when I write about him is I say, um, they were men from the middle of nowhere, and so, but they went and did this very noble work.

NOEL: For many of those men, says Montoya, it was the one time they left home. And that suitcase he took with him carried far more than sentimental personal effects. 

FAWN AMBER MONTOYA: And for my grandfather, he ends up dying less than 20 miles from the place that he was born. Um, but for me, when I teach my children about their grandfather, it's very clear that like, We're, we're Latinos, we're Mexican Americans, right?  My grandfather, he earned the right for us to be here. And it very much clarifies that whatever happens with the politics in this nation, that we as Chicanos, as Mexican Americans, as Borderlands people, like, This is our nation. These documents help to contextualize both who we are, where we're from, but also to help us become part of, either see ourselves as part of a global community, really help us to understand how we belong in the places that we live in.

NOEL: Ultimately, any object is meaningless compared to our lives. But in a world that seems likely to burn in ways we can’t yet imagine, it’s more important to remember that our lives without our stories are meaningless, too.  


NOEL: A quick postscript to this story. On January 10, 2024, just as we were wrapping up production on this episode, the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the winds that spread the Marshall Fire were in fact tantamount to an inland hurricane with winds as fast as 127 miles per hours, and sustained winds of more than 100 miles per hour, lasting more than 11 hours. 

[Music fade out]

[Outro theme]


NOEL: Lost Highways is a production of History Colorado and History Colorado Studios. It’s made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. And by a founding grant from the Sturm Family Foundation, with particular thanks to Stephen Sturm and Emily Sturm.

If you enjoyed this episode of Lost Highways and want to support it, please subscribe, rate us, and write us a review on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Also, tell a friend and share one of your favorite episodes. You can find links to individual episodes at

Many thanks to Tyler Hill, who produced this episode, and to Dustin Hodge, who gathered tape and contributed writing.

Special thanks also to Susan Schulten, our History advisor; to Chief Creative Officer Jason Hanson; to Publications Director SAM BOCK; to Ann Sneesby-Koch for her newspaper and periodical research; and to History Colorado’s editorial team Lori Bailey and Devin Flores.

NOEL: If you'd like to see a transcript of any of our episodes, either as a matter of accessibility or because you'd like to use Lost Highways in your classroom, you can find them at

The Merry Olivers composed the music for this episode, and our theme is by Conor Bourgal.

Many thanks to our editorial team:

Shaun Boyd
Eric Carpio
Terri Gentry
Chris Juergens
Aaron Marcus
and Ann Sneesby-Koch

And to our Advisory Group:

Susan Schulten 
Thomas Andrews
Tom Romero
and Cara DeGette

NOEL: Finally, a huge thanks to the entire staff at History Colorado. And thanks for listening. I’m NOEL Black.