| Colorado water leaders impacted by Marshall Fire pay it forward in Maui
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Colorado water leaders impacted by Marshall Fire pay it forward in Maui

As the world reacted with shock and disbelief to news coverage of the destructive wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, in August, a small group of Colorado water professionals experienced another reaction – sad recollection.

Louisville, Colorado, water utility during Marshall Fire emergencyBoulder County faced an eerily similar tragedy in December 2021 during the Marshall Fire that roared through parts of the city of Louisville and town of Superior, killing two people and destroying more than 1,000 structures. Those responsible for heroically maintaining local water systems were heartbroken to see in Maui a reenactment of their own disaster, which also began with a quickly moving grass fire in a drought-stricken urban area and erupted into a community-wide catastrophe.

“It was like reliving a nightmare, but watching from afar and knowing exactly what was happening,” said Kurt Kowar, director of public works & utilities in Louisville. “Seeing the widespread destruction and loss of life in Maui, we realized how lucky our team and community were, and that we have the obligation to pay it forward because these types of fires aren’t going away.” 

Louisville, Colorado, water leadersTo share their support and assistance, Kowar, along with Cory Peterson, Louisville’s deputy director of utilities, and Greg Venette, water treatment superintendent, arrived in Maui a few weeks after the fires and spent a week discussing lessons learned from the Marshall Fire. They were invited by researchers at the University of Hawaii and Purdue University, who were studying water systems impacted by wildfires, to join a Maui response team with water professionals from Paradise and Santa Rosa, California, who also had dealt with destructive wildfires. 

This AWWA video shares their perspectives about both the Marshall Fire and their visit to Maui. 

“We arrived in Maui prepared to share our data and the lessons we’d learned, but we were unprepared for the overwhelming wave of emotion and the powerful connection we developed with the people and the community,” Kowar said. “As we attempted to heal their wounds, it became apparent they were helping us continue to heal ours.”

Remembering the Marshall Fire 

Venette was working from home Dec. 31, 2021, when he was notified of a grass fire near Louisville’s Howard Berry Water Treatment Plant. Ten minutes later, he was online, watching remotely as the fire swept through the plant site, fueled by wind speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. 

“I knew we were going to need water, lots of it, and I jumped into a vehicle and headed to the plant,” he said. “When I got there, the staff was doing the best it could to ramp up to full production. We had no idea how bad or widespread the fire was at that point.”

As he communicated with his team, they learned that the nearby town of Superior was no longer able to produce water and was being evacuated. Fortunately, Louisville and Superior had previously installed an interconnect system to enable the exchange of water between the two systems, so they drove through the fire area to start it up. Later, Superior was able to provide water to Louisville when additional supplies were needed.

“We were very much in a support role to Superior at first,” Peterson said. “As the fire moved, it quickly turned into our own disaster. We were in a situation of dual help, depending on who had the capacity.”

As their water tanks drew dangerously low, the utility opened a large, raw water valve into its potable system to boost dangerously low water pressure so firefighters could do their job. Later, utility crews traveled against evacuation traffic to bring online Louisville’s Howard Berry Water Treatment Plant, which was not running during a low-demand winter period. After driving through the fire zone, the staff worked in the dark to bring it online manually and without computer systems since the facility’s electricity was shut off. Compressed natural gas was driven in to fuel their generator. 

“We had a lot of people who worked 30 to 40 hours straight through during some very traumatic conditions,” Kowar said. “During the last half of the fire, after both treatment plants were back online, we still weren’t regaining pressure. Our crews went into fire zones and manually shut down whole neighborhoods or individual homes where water was leaking from incinerated service line pipes.”

As they got to the recovery phase, with boil water notices in effect, they coordinated with multiple crews volunteering from other systems to flush their system with highly chlorinated water so they could reestablish service to parts of their community. Working 24-7 shifts, at times during blizzard conditions, they remarkably reopened the undamaged part of their system after just four days. In more severe burn areas, damage assessment took months, and the city distributed bottled water and set up refill stations to hold residents over.

Paying it forward in Maui

Equipped with all they had learned under fire, the Louisville crew travelled to Maui with documents outlining water chemistry, infrastructure and other lessons learned from their experience and follow-up research with Purdue University. Their information included a water system recovery protocol that was tried, tested and approved by Colorado health officials, and soon approved in Hawaii for Maui Water to implement.

Reflecting on their actions and decisions during the Marshall Fire, the water leaders attributed their system’s sustainability to advance planning, training and the freedom to make decisions when under pressure. They had established and tested standard operating procedures, such as annual testing of the interconnect and running a plant without the use of computer systems. 

They also had invested in major construction and improvements to their system, including a $3.2 million potable water pump station that replaced one that had been in service since the 1980s.

“Everything seems to move in slow motion during a disaster and your back is against the wall,” Kowar said. “Our culture of doing it right the first time, failing forward, moving fast and being agile, with really fantastic employees that own their work, helped us respond more quickly.”