City Stories, On-the-Go

The City of Boulder produces two podcasts: Let's Talk Boulder and Somos Boulder.

Let's Talk Boulder explores our community one conversation at a time, with interviews from city staff, local leaders and your neighbors.

Somos Boulder brings you all the latest city information you need to know in Spanish.

Find us wherever you listen to podcasts.

Let's Talk Boulder logo

Listen Now to Let's Talk Boulder

Check out the eighth episode of Let's Talk Boulder: "A Child Friendly Boulder." We're talking child-friendly cities this episode, communities where all kids feel safe and cared for, while being able to express their opinions and influence decisions that affect them. Becoming a child-friendly Boulder is an ongoing journey, but we've got a plan for how to get there. Ready, set, tune in!

How to Listen

In Browser

Listen to our podcasts directly in your browser on Podbean:

On the Go

Listen to our podcasts on-the-go by finding us wherever you listen to podcasts:

At Home

Ask your Alexa, Google Home or other smart speaker to "Play Let's Talk Boulder Podcast" or "Somos Boulder Podcast."

Download for Later

Download our podcast episodes to listen offline on Podbean.

Let's Talk Boulder

Let's Talk Boulder digs into stories and challenges from the Flatirons. Along the way, you’ll hear from City of Boulder staff, local leaders and your neighbors, and we hope you'll walk away from each episode feeling a bit more connected to this place we call home.

Episode Show Notes and Transcripts

Please see our show notes and transcripts for podcast guest resources, music attributes and a written transcription of each episode. Show notes and transcripts are listed by episode.

We're talking child-friendly cities this episode, communities where all kids feel safe and cared for, while being able to express their opinions and influence decisions that affect them. Becoming a child-friendly Boulder is an ongoing journey, but we've got a plan for how to get there. Ready, set, tune in!

Explore more visions for a child-friendly Boulder.

Special guests in this episode:

  • Sarah Huntley, Director of the City of Boulder Communications and Engagement Department
  • Mara Mintzer, Co-Founder and Director of Growing Up Boulder
  • Avery Stuhlbarg, YOAB member
  • Elias Weatherley, YOAB member
  • Jeff Kagan of Jeff & Paige
  • Paige Doughty of Jeff & Paige

This episode was produced and hosted by Leah Kelleher. Theme music is Wide Eyes by Chad Crouch/Podington Bear, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Related Resources:

Stay in the loop: follow City of Boulder Instagram #CFCIBoulder, and subscribe to city updates and Growing Up Boulder's newsletter.

Upcoming Engagement Opportunities:

Learn more about both events.

Music in this episode (adapted):

"A Civic Area" by Jeff and Paige.


Leah: Remember when you were a kid and the world was so new and interesting, and your town felt as big as the universe? Maybe you’d race your friends up a tree on your neighborhood corner. Perhaps you spent after school nestled in a nook in the library. Or maybe you’d meet up for a movie at the local theater. We want these ideal, dreamy experiences for every child, but unfortunately that’s not the reality for everyone in Boulder. Childhood can be hard, and no matter your age, it’s difficult to ignore the urgent, stressful crises felt by our community and beyond. That’s why we have folks working to make our city a place where all kids feel safe, have access to clean outdoor spaces to explore and play, and where they can help make decisions about the community they call home. This is the theme of our episode: child friendly spaces, and more broadly, child friendly cities. They can look like a lot of different things, so we asked some local youth and adults to describe what a child-friendly Boulder could look like.

Sarah: When you have an opportunity to look to the future you want to create, there's so many thoughts that go through your mind. And for me right now, I have this sort of ping, ping, ping, ping going up in my brain.

Avery: For me, a child-friendly Boulder would look like a place where all kids can grow up in a really safe environment and one that has a lot of resources for them to deal with whatever they need to deal with throughout the whole process of childhood -- growing up from being a baby to a teenager in Boulder and having that support all along the way, also having spaces where kids can share their voice and give their opinions.

Mara: Young people can get around on their own. They can be independently mobile without having to rely upon adults to chauffeur them everywhere. Well, that means better bike paths, better connectivity around the city, fewer accidents and fear of traffic and cars. They also ask for art, and when they ask for art, they want it to be interactive. So they want the ability to climb on it, to make art, not just to look at it.

Elias: I think it's a place that prioritizes education. Playgrounds -- they're safe.

Sarah: I think about recreation, and I think about my own kids -- about the role that recreation and organized activity has had in their life, whether it was sports or drama or arts or scouts. I also think about the importance of making sure that those opportunities are affordable and accessible to everybody.

Mara: A child friendly city is also more beautiful. Young people always request more nature.

Sarah: The great outdoors and the amazing, amazing joy that a child can have just being free, running around in the grass and not having the constraints of the walls and the structures that we create in our society.

Leah: That all sounds pretty lovely, right? Interactive art in public spaces, safe streets with few cars, walkable neighborhoods that don’t require other people to shuttle you around, and ways to share your voice. Boulder already has many of these things, but the work is not done to make our community as child friendly as possible for all children. This is the ongoing journey we’re digging into in this episode.

I'm Leah Kelleher, and you're listening to “Let's Talk Boulder,” a City of Boulder podcast exploring our community, one conversation at a time. The folks you heard at the top of the episode were Sarah Huntley, Avery Stuhlbarg, Mara Mintzer, and Elias Weatherley, in order of appearance. We’ll get back to who they are in a little bit.

OK, so I keep using this term “child friendly,” but what does that really mean? Well, in the context of local government, it actually has a semi-specific meaning and a history. For Boulder, that history started at a UNICEF USA conference in Jacksonville, Florida before COVID hit. The conference focused on children’s rights and the Child Friendly City Initiative that UNICEF was leading. For those who don’t know, UNICEF stands for the United Nations Children's Fund. As their name suggests, they’re an agency of the United Nations that provides humanitarian aid to children worldwide. UNICEF USA is essentially our national chapter of the broader organization.

Sarah: The goal of the conference was to sort of introduce some of these key concepts to people and really help local government and other public sector and nonprofit types of leaders understand that children of all ages have rights.

Leah: This is Sarah Huntley.

Sarah: I'm the Director of Communication and Engagement for the city. What that means is that I get to work with a wonderful team of people who make sure that everybody in the community has an opportunity to know about services, programs, and their local government, and also has an opportunity to engage in decision-making in ways we can make our community and our government stronger.

Leah: It’s important to note that there’s actually an international treaty that guides this work.

Mara: There is an international treaty called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which outlines human rights for anyone under the age of 18.

Leah: This is Mara Mintzer, she leads Growing Up Boulder, a local nonprofit that works to center young people's voices to make our community more equitable and sustainable for everyone. OK, back to Mara.

Mara: There are communities all over the world that have taken this lofty treaty and turned it into action. And when they do that in collaboration with their national UNICEF office, that becomes a Child Friendly City Initiative. Well, when we started Growing Up Boulder, UNICEF USA, which is our national committee, wasn't in the business of doing child-friendly cities yet. The United States is the only nation in the world that has not ratified this treaty.

Mara: However, in 2020, UNICEF USA launched its own version of Child Friendly Cities. And the reason I say all of this is because Growing Up Boulder, our work was our grassroots version of a Child Friendly City Initiative, because we decided, well, we're not going to wait for there to be the model developed for the United States. And let's just make it happen our own way in Boulder. And that's what we had been doing up until 2023. But in 2023 we did sign a memorandum of understanding with the City of Boulder, Growing Up Boulder and UNICEF USA to officially launch as a Child Friendly City.

Sarah: And even though the United States has not ratified those rights in the same way as other countries, we are committed to making sure that young people are kept healthy in each of the concrete ways we think of health, but also have an opportunity to participate in civic life. That concept of bringing a designation to a city and going through a deliberate process to identify what our young people need was introduced and sparked for me at that conference.

Sarah: So fast forward. First of all, I think we've all learned and observed that COVID was a tough time for everybody in our communities, but particularly for our young people. It really disrupted the structures and some of the socialization that kids very young and all the way up until their teenage years get through the school system.

Leah: This is in addition to all the other crises that children are well aware of: climate change, substance abuse, war, affordable housing -- just to name a few.

Mara: And so, it's really important to build their hope and their sense of being able to take action because that's the only way we're going to be able to move through this is moving through it together. And there's a lot of research that shows that when young people take collective action, really any age, but it's so important for young people, it helps reduce some of that anxiety that we're feeling in response to what's happening with the world around us.

Leah: After the UNICEF USA conference, Growing Up Boulder and the city came together to launch a local Child Friendly Cities Initiative here in Boulder.

Sarah: About a year and a half ago, when the Growing Up Boulder team came back to the city and said, we feel like we're prepared and structured to really support you, if you wanted to embark upon this journey. Are you ready to do so? And we were able to say yes. We felt like we were, at least from the perspective of what's the role the city can be playing in improving quality of life for young people.

Leah: This wasn’t a new relationship -- the city and Growing Up Boulder have been working together on many different projects for years.

Mara: When Growing Up Boulder was founded, it was a collaboration between the University of Colorado, the City of Boulder and Boulder Valley School District, along with a number of nonprofits and young people themselves. Over the years, the way it's evolved is that the city will ask internally, what are the top projects that they would like young people's input on?

Sarah: And the nice thing about Growing Up Boulder is they have great expertise in how to bring people of all ages into the process.

Mara: We've worked with over 8500 young people from as young as even babies and toddlers all the way up through high school students.

Sarah: One of my most fun memories is when they worked with a preschool and they were looking at our transportation system and they had these little, little tykes who had GoPros on their heads.

Mara: The preschoolers walked around and explored crossing streets, trying to experience what it was like to be a pedestrian and what they found was that it was really scary to be walking on some of Boulder’s streets that were very busy. The input from those toddlers then went into the Transportation Master Plan to work towards Vision Zero.

Leah: For those who don’t know, Vision Zero is Boulder’s goal to reduce the number of severe crashes (fatalities and serious injuries) down to zero. We’ll include a link in our show notes if you’re interested in learning more. You’re hopefully gathering that Growing Up Boulder is a really important leader in our journey to become a Child Friendly City. But they aren’t the only ones leading the charge. And you may be wondering: where are the youth voices in all of this? This brings us to the Youth Opportunities Advisory Board or YOAB for short. YOAB is a group of local high school students who work closely with city staff.

Sarah: They tend to be some really bright, insightful teenagers who learn more about city projects and processes and are able to both advise us on the youth perspective, but also when it works really, really well, they're bringing in other youth voices.

Avery: It's really just this platform that gives high schoolers in Boulder an opportunity to really come forward and have a voice in a space where they traditionally haven't before. And this is really just an opportunity for them to have that say.

Leah: This is Avery Stuhlbarg. Avery is currently on YOAB. Together, the city, YOAB and Growing Up Boulder have been working to forward the Child Friendly Cities Initiative, and this work -- this focus on youth -- aims to reflect the city’s commitment to be more inclusive in our decision-making processes.

Sarah: Often when we think of inclusivity and diversity, we tend to think of maybe race or ethnicity, socioeconomic groups, but certainly age is a demographic that allows us a lot of richness and perspective and lived experiences. We have young people who are being raised in Boulder and who will benefit or not benefit depending on decisions we make well into their teen years, into their adulthood. So, as we've recognized the importance of inclusivity, I think we've refined our understanding of different interest groups. We really look at the different segments of our community to understand who's most likely to be impacted. I feel pretty strongly that when Boulder does longer-term planning in particular, it's our young people who really need to have a voice in that.

Sarah: Because if you're talking about a plan that isn't going to come to fruition for 10, 15, 20 years, who's going to be living in the environment where that plan happens? It's going to be the people who we think of as young today. I also just want to say that sometimes there's a little bit of a bias that young people can't possibly understand all of the complexities of government or can't understand the nuances of regulations and finances. And I think while their maturity level around some of those specific topics might be lower than an adult’s, I have found very insightful young people they have this ability to think beyond the constraints that can be really liberating and fun to watch, and really forces us as a government to lean into creativity and innovation in ways that perhaps adult stakeholders aren't able to provoke.

Avery: I think there's this stereotype that youth really aren't involved or aren't interested in being involved in decision making and in really things that we see as important in society. And we're here to just kind of say like we're interested.

Leah: And this is evident in the many projects YOAB is involved in -- from the Child Friendly Cities Initiative to re imagining policing.

Avery: The Boulder Police Department work group, working with them to help improve relations between police officers and youth in the community. Another big one that I'm part of is the Teen Town Halls Action Committee. Me and a few other YOAB members have worked really hard this year to implement teen town halls in Boulder, which are basically opportunities for high school-aged kids to come and share their opinions on either a variety of subjects or one topic of focus.

Avery: And we already had one in December. That was a huge success. I think we had an eighth grader all the way through seniors in high school, and it felt so powerful being able to be in such a meaningful discussion and just have youth there.

00;20;25;29 - 00;20;48;28

Avery: Not to discount adults or anything, but it was just really an amazing feeling. And we had scheduled an hour and a half for discussion time, an hour and a half for the whole event. We intervened and we're like, “so sorry, our time is approaching,” and then they go like, “no, we want to keep talking.”

Avery: So, we ended up talking for another 30 minutes. And it just showed me how much interest there is out there. And if we keep pushing and keep marketing, how we can turn these conversations into real change-making opportunities.

Elias: A lot of students are very disillusioned with politics in general, but I think especially local politics and government.

Leah: This is Elias Weatherley. He is also on YOAB.

Elias: And I am a senior at New Vista right now. Some people I knew came to the town hall, they were a lot more engaged there…asking a lot of questions, participating a lot.

Sarah: Trust in government could not be more important than right now. We've seen through COVID and through some of the political upheaval in our country that trust is at an all-time low. And when you build trust, if you can build it at a young age and help people see that they absolutely have the power to influence the decisions that impact them, that trust continues through adulthood.

Leah: I want to come back to what Elias and Avery just said because it feels like a really important point: when youth have a comfortable space to share their ideas, they are ready to bring them to the table. They are ready to discuss difficult topics, like policing and climate change, and imagine what a better system -- what a better future could look like.

Mara: One of the things we can do as adult allies is create spaces for young people to be able to share their thoughts and their feelings. Often in government we think young people should come to us, right? They should come to city council meetings; they should show up to public meetings. But that can be very intimidating. And so, what Growing Up Boulder has done throughout our 15 years is we often bring the adult decision makers, whether it's city staff or council members, into the classrooms or into the young people's spaces. And then they're able to talk more freely. And that shift in power dynamic can be incredibly powerful.

Avery: I've already been able to see how much impact the work that we've been doing has had on the community. Everything we've done has kind of just had this quantitative and qualitative outcome where we've been able to reach communities and make differences that have been visible.

Sarah: Kids, when they give their feedback about what they want in community, they are so empathetic and so compassionate, and they always think outside themselves. And I remember one little girl in particular who was telling me that we really needed to have more dog parks.

Sarah: I asked her, you know, why do you think dog parks are important for community? And she told me that whenever she gets to go to a dog park, she meets so many people she didn't know before because the dogs are interacting, and people start having conversations. And she said in particular, she really liked meeting older adults there. She said a lot of older adults would come in the middle of the day, maybe after school, when she would go, and she could talk to people who were like her grandma and her grandpa.

Leah: So, clearly there’s some great work happening already in Boulder, but here’s the million-dollar question: how does Boulder become a more child friendly city? How do we continue to improve our community for young people? And when will Boulder officially be recognized as a Child Friendly City?

Mara: There are a number of steps that go into becoming a Child Friendly City. The first is signing that memorandum of understanding, saying all the parties are committed to it and doing a launch. We launched our initiative with 400 children and families along with the Dia del Nino in April of 2023. Then the next step is pulling together a community partnership roundtable of different organizations that are dedicated to young people to talk about this process and see how they might wish to be engaged.

Sarah: Try to have a clear and inclusive conversation about what the needs are and how those needs are being met today and how are they not being met today. And then you can start to dream about what the future might look like.

Mara: We then have been doing what's called a situation analysis, which is made up of two parts. That’s kind of a big way of describing it. The first is a government assessment. So, looking at quantitative data about how our children and youth are doing, you know, how many of them are staying in school, how many of them are using substances, how many of them have access to nature on a regular basis? Those sorts of questions.

Mara: At the same time, we're doing something called community conversations which says, well, from young people themselves, what do you think? Here are the five different categories of child and youth well-being, whether it's safety and inclusion or play, leisure or equitable access to social services. What do you think?

Sarah: We've already been able to glean some themes, even though we have not gotten deep into the imagining phase yet. When we get into the imagining phase, there will be lots of youth led engagement by both YOAB as well as some city staff groups and importantly community partners. It is a very intentional, thoughtful and deliberate process. Certainly, the City of Boulder has been serving young people for many, many years, but we have never really stopped to catalog what that looks like.

And it's been very dispersed across different departments. From my department's perspective, I'm looking at it from the realm of public participation and civic engagement. But from Climate Initiatives, they're thinking about it from the perspective of the risk that climate change has to young people. From Housing and Human Services, they're thinking about whether children are in safe environments when they lay their heads down at night and what kind of support systems are in place for them. OSMP, Open Space and Mountain Parks, Parks and Recreation, have a tremendous catalog of ways they engage young people and give them opportunities to stay healthy and get outdoors and recreate.

Sarah: So, we're doing a lot, but we haven't really, as a city organization, stopped to look at the totality and perhaps more importantly, where the gaps are. We are hearing a lot about emotional health, mental health.

Elias: I know a lot of kids are very aware of the serious issues going on in Boulder and in the world. There has to be openness and honesty about that.

Avery: Being a teenager, there's a lot of real pressure on us coming from absolutely all directions, whether that be from coaches or teachers or parents or peers.

Elias: There are a lot of problems in the world. And I think we're going to be the generation that has to solve a lot of these issues. I know there's been a lot more acknowledgment of mental health and its impacts, but I think there's still some stigma surrounding getting therapy or seeking some kind of mental health help.

Leah: Feedback also comes from the classroom.

Mara: We have had a number of teachers in the Boulder Valley School District, as well as in the private schools who have taken this notion of Child Friendly Cities and run with it. Whittier Elementary School teachers have been doing an entire unit with young people. What are your rights? What are things that are important to you to make your city safe for you and for your peers? They're writing essays about what matters to them. This is not just some sort of academic exercise. It's actually creating people who will give back to their community over a lifetime.

Sarah: When we've engaged with young people with the help of Growing Up Boulder, it has been some of the most rewarding work I've ever done. Being able to go into a classroom, for example, and watch kids come alive with the idea of possibilities and then also sort of have to have the conversation with them about, okay, you've got this great idea and it may not happen for five years because you know how when there's something you want in a store and you don't have enough money right away, you have to keep that vision ahead of you and start putting money in your piggy bank? And you save up for something you really, really want. Well, that's what local government has to do sometimes, too. And so, help kids understand it and be able to have a conversation with them that's at their level, particularly for younger kids, about why it sometimes takes time in local government to realize the possibilities they've imagined.

Mara: We've also heard about making sure that families have affordable housing, because that is an issue that even our children are very aware of and that it affects many of them.

Elias: One of the things that could really help a lot of younger people, maybe as they get a bit older, is just having Boulder be a more affordable place because I know a lot of people are getting priced out now. And I think if kids can grow up in a place that is affordable, where their family can own a home or at least a nice apartment, it's going to benefit them massively in the future.

Avery: I've lived here my whole life. I had all the opportunities to, you know, take advantage of the mountains and open spaces and wonderful things that Boulder has to offer and lots of safe and clean areas for play and leisure. But one of the things that I think we could improve on is making sure that is equitable. Not just play and leisure, I mean, making sure that every kid can have a voice, not just a select sampling of them, making sure that all of them can have a safe environment, and making sure all of them can access resources is super important.

Leah: Avery and Elias bring up some important gaps -- equitable access to safe, child-friendly spaces, affordable housing and decision-making opportunities are just a few of the places where we need to improve, and certainly others will continue to surface as we chat with young people and folks who support youth.

Mara: Once we have all of that data together, which is a lot of data, we're going to share it back with all of our stakeholders, and that includes our city staff stakeholders, young people themselves, the nonprofit partners, the schools, all of these different groups who have worked with us. And we're going to ask them to help us make sense of this data. One of the best things when you're doing this sort of engagement work is going back to your community and finding out, did we hear you correctly? And so, we will be having some intergenerational meetings or workshops where they get to weigh in on what we’ve heard and help us make sense of it. Then it becomes the process of narrowing down big ideas into what are the top three priorities we as a community want to focus on. That will be a citywide action plan. And then over the years, we're going to actually try implementing it and measuring it.

Mara: If you want to do that deep listening and real systems change, it does take time, but we see it as an investment in the ongoing relationships. This is not transactional. We have so far heard from over 850 children, youth, parents, elders, service providers, and it is incredible the amount of enthusiasm and the insights that we are already starting to hear from our community.

Sarah: The reality is that this is going to take all of our community. And so, we've really been actively engaging with organizations and partners who touch young people's lives in ways that local government does not and who may have resources and expertise that we don’t have. What are they already doing and what could they do more of or differently if we were able to allocate some funding to them?

Leah: This brings us to something we should mention – how this work is being funded. One of the ways in Colorado is through money the City of Boulder is receiving from the sale of the Bronco Stadium. It’s about $2 million dollars.

Sarah: It's our share that we're getting as a city to be put towards youth programs.

Leah: We’re not the only community receiving money from the sale, but we are trying to be a bit different in how we spend it.

Sarah: We have said we're going to take a pause. It will be very important seed money once the young people in our community have an opportunity to tell us what they need the most. Once we do have some action items, we do have the beginning of funding to start to meet some of those needs and start to enact programs or services that our young people tell us they need more of. At the same time, as part of our inventory, we're looking at dollars we're already spending in the city and it's possible that we could repurpose some of those if there are higher priorities that young people might have.

Leah: Thanks, Sarah. I want to come back to this recognition that creating a more child friendly city is going to require everyone from our community to step up to support youth. And when I think about others in our community who are doing just that, I think of Jeff and Paige.

Jeff: Hi, I'm Jeff.

Paige: And I'm Paige.

Jeff and Paige: And together we are Jeff and Paige.

Leah: Jeff and Paige are musicians who make science and nature-themed music for kids. Their songs are educational and whimsical. You may have seen them perform at the Farmer’s Market, on Pearl Street, at Boulder Creek Fest or at other events around Boulder County. Or, if you're a parent, you may be well acquainted with their rainbow socks and funky outfits.

Jeff: We sing songs about science and nature. We do educational skits, and whenever we go hiking and our concerts, it sounds like this. Ah, ooh, ooh.

Both singing: We’re hiking. Ooh. Ah, ooh. We’re hiking.


Paige: So, that pretty much sums it up.

Jeff: We've been doing children's science and nature themed environmental music and concerts for 19 years in Boulder County and beyond.

Paige: We have two kids who are currently four and eight years old, and we spend a lot of time together.

Jeff: Yes, we do. We have seven albums of children’s music about science, nature and sustainability.

Leah: Jeff and Paige are also long-time partners with the City of Boulder. They have worked to spread the word on a ton of different local topics, like how to compost right and the importance of civic engagement.

Jeff: Check out the Compost Man video on the Jeff and Paige Facebook page.

Paige: I will just say that Jeff let me throw garbage at his face.

Jeff: It wasn't garbage. It was compost -- moist coffee grounds…

Leah: (Chuckle) This relationship started with Open and Space and Mountain Parks who partnered with Jeff and Paige to hold outdoor concerts that became a series called Meadow Music.

Jeff: Our association with Open Space and the ability to lead kids concerts week after week every single summer for 19 years has allowed us to connect with hundreds, maybe thousands of kids.

Paige: We met in graduate school for Environmental Education.

Paige: Jeff started writing a lot of the music that actually became our first album during that program.

Leah: During that graduate program, Jeff and Paige were confronted with some of the ways our world is suffering from climate change. It was a painful experience.

Paige: I went home on break from our graduate program, and I just melted into the couch after spending time on some Native American reservations learning about the salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest. Just really understanding the depth of the issues and the oppression and all the intricate ways that it connected with every single thing.

Jeff: I had a similar despair. Just feeling like everything that I knew was not true and nobody else in my life understood it. Doing this as our work, I do think you have to experience that despair and not let it consume you. And be like, but wait, there's all this joy, there's all this biodiversity, there's all these trails, there's these moments where we burst into the alpine and our heart just explodes and like, that's what I want to share. So, we take that despair and we turn it as positive as possible.

Paige: There's so much more…like in the garden when you go out there to see what's really going on. It doesn't feel like despair. It feels amazing. It feels like life. So, there's a lot of awareness work and becoming present to reality, as in right here, right now, in this moment, reality versus what's my mind saying about what's happening. And so, for me personally, that's been a huge part of my journey to being able to joyfully express about what's happening in the world.

Leah: That doesn’t mean Jeff and Paige don’t help children understand and handle difficult topics, like climate change. They just do it in a way that’s approachable and supportive for kids.

Jeff: We can talk about a human change that we want to see, but if we say it from the perspective of me in a tree costume, talking about the CO2 that I'm going to take in, it just works better -- whether it's with kids or adults to have that levity while I'm dressed in something like a tree. Saying something from the perspective of a character allows us to say something that might sound preachy or feel scary to say as Jeff.

Paige: I can remember being in middle school and reading 101 things kids can do to save the Earth. And it was such a well-meaning book and it destroyed me. I remember being in the shower just thinking I shouldn't be using the water and trying to like, take military-style showers. For me, my motivation for being really careful about how we talk about especially anything that's like a bigger picture issue, like climate or habitat destruction or water rights, we do touch on those themes, but, we talk about them from a place of curiosity and interest and love and hey, how do you use water at home? No judgment trying to get rid of the judgment completely.

Leah: And in doing so, Jeff and Paige help parents in our community have these difficult conversations with youth. Like Elias was saying earlier, these conversations are really important, and we shouldn’t shy away from having them with kids. We just need to do it in a thoughtful, supportive way that pairs an acknowledgement of the things that are hard to face with the good in the world that still exists.

Paige: And then for children, not saying this is your problem. No, no, no, we're all doing it. We're all going to do this together. I'm here, the grandparents are here, the kids are here. We're all shifting together. Look at these things that are happening. We're in a transition, we’re shifting, and you're not alone. And yes, your actions make a difference. And yes, sometimes you can’t do everything exactly how you’re supposed to quote, un-quote do it.

Leah: We’re starting that shift to a better future in Boulder, and of course part of that shift is becoming a more child-friendly city. But the work doesn’t stop once Boulder gets its official “Child Friendly City” designation from UNICEF. Ensuring our city is a supportive, safe and enjoyable place for young people is an ongoing journey.

Sarah: We have to be thoughtful, we have to have conversations. We're letting young people be empowered and lift their voices. And whether we ever get a certificate or not that says we're a Child Friendly City, we will have won as a community by focusing on those things.

Mara: I don't really care about names or recognition. What does it actually mean? How does it make a difference? What it does is it gets all sectors of our community to work together and specifically centering the voices of young people, and particularly those from historically marginalized backgrounds, to say what are the top priorities and issues we want to improve in our community?

Sarah: The idea of making sure that children are healthy and thriving in our community is a never-ending journey. We're going to have new young people, new challenges, new opportunities, new ways to make sure that they are really having an opportunity to excel in life here in Boulder.

Leah: You, listener, can join us on this journey by tuning into the process like you are right now and by taking part in engagement opportunities.

Mara: You can follow us on different social media platforms or go to our website, which is and sign up for our newsletter at the bottom. We'll always alert you when there's an opportunity coming up. And we partnered closely with the city on all of that. So, it's often available through city channels as well.

Sarah: We also have a Child Friendly Cities Initiative website that will be posting information about upcoming efforts. We also have a presence for this topic on our Be Heard Boulder site, which is an online 24/7 engagement platform, and at various points in the process there will be different questions people can answer.

Elias: I think when it comes to involvement - maybe you're too busy, maybe you aren't super interested. But, I think just get involved somehow. That can mean anything from attending city council meetings. Attending your town halls or calling your senator, which you can absolutely do.

Mara: Our city council meetings, commission meetings, those are always open to any age. And I really encourage our young people, if you feel ready to come and speak at those meetings, the adults who are there are delighted to hear from you. It's very impactful to them. They wish they could hear more from you. Then the last thing is high school students can apply to the Youth Opportunities Advisory Board. They will be looking for new high school students next year because a lot of their current ones are graduating. So please apply for that leadership position -- it’s a great way to work with Growing Up Boulder and the city, and really make a change.

Leah: As always, we’ve dropped links to all of these resources in our show notes. Now, we’ve talked a lot about the process to become a community where kids of all ages thrive, but I’d love to close out with some messages for young people from your peers Elias and Avery, and the adults in this episode, Sarah, Mara, Jeff and Paige. We hope you’re listening, young people! And also while I’m closing out the episode, a big thank you to all of the people just listed who were in this episode. OK, here is goes.

Paige: I hope that anyone listening can find the pieces in their life and in their city and in their community that are working and dig in there. Try to find something to focus on that's happening that's positive, that's good, that maybe is incredible.

Avery: Pick what you're interested in or find what you're interested in and just go all in with that. There are opportunities out there, whether that be in Boulder or beyond to get your opinions out there and your ideas, whether that's on a team that you're on or a school activity or a club you're part of, really just keep pushing because your voice matters.

Elias: More generally, I think I just would say to kids, just keep fighting. I think there's a lot that this generation is going to have to fight for, whether it be local stuff, more national stuff. Keep fighting and keep being critical.

Sarah: For young people who are out there listening, I want you to know that your local government here in Boulder cares about you. We want to hear from you. Young people may have a perception that the adults in the community don't see them and don't value them. And I think it's really important for us as adults individually and as members of local government, to recognize all the gifts that young people bring to us, the joy, the compassion, the empathy, and the deep emotional feelings that they can carry and the importance of recognizing all the ups and downs of that.

Mara: You're not just future citizens, you’re current citizens, and I mean citizen with a lowercase C, right? It doesn't mean your documentation status. You are residents of this community, and you have a voice now. And so please, reach out to us, speak up at different events, share what you believe in because you have the opportunity to make change right now. Don't wait till you're over 18.

Sarah: We are not the experts on your lived experience, you are. Whatever it is that you feel like you have something to contribute to, please don't be afraid to step up, take the mic and tell us what you need.

A close look at our years-long recovery from the 2013 flood. We're digging into flood mitigation and preparedness, and lessons learned that have made our response and recovery stronger.

Special guests in this episode (City of Boulder staff):

  • Joe Taddeucci, Director of Utilities
  • Chris Meschuk, Deputy City Manager
  • Jennelle Freeston, Deputy Director of Community Connections and Partnerships for Open Space and Mountain Parks
  • Brandon Coleman, Engineering Project Manager
  • Chad Brotherton, Visitor Infrastructure Senior Manager for Open Space and Mountain Parks
  • Mike Chard, Director of the Office of Disaster Management for the City of Boulder and Boulder County.

This episode was hosted by Cate Stanek and Leah Kelleher. It was produced by Leah Kelleher. Theme music is Wide Eyes by Chad Crouch/Podington Bear, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Related Resources:

Upcoming Engagement Opportunities:

Feb. 22 – Joint City Council and Open Space Board of Trustees public hearing on open space disposal for South Boulder Creek. A decision on disposal will be made in March. Find more opportunities and office hours with city staff on our website.

Music in this episode (adapted):

All are licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License, Attribution-NonCommercial License or Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


Chris: The spring after the flood, we were getting ready for Spring runoff, and we didn't know how the creeks were all going to act because they still had a bunch of sediment in them. And so, the flood risk for the community was even greater.

Chris: We ended up going door to door in certain neighborhoods, knocking on doors, talking to residents about…”hey, we want to give you this entire community guide to flood resilience and make sure you know what you need to do and get you signed up for emergency alerts in case there’s a flood.” And I remember knocking on this one door and this woman answered the door and her kids were sitting at the dining room table, and she invited us in and told us the story of the night of the flood for them. That they were getting ready for bed and the kid's bedrooms were down in the basement. And her son said, Mom, I don't think I should sleep in the basement if it's going to flood. And she said, “oh, it's not going to flood. It's going to be fine. It's just raining a lot. Let's go to bed.” And then she woke up at two in the morning to her kids screaming, and she came downstairs and her kids' bed was floating in the water, and they raced upstairs. And in that moment of panic, she said, how did you know that you weren't supposed to sleep in the basement if it's going to flood?

Chris: And he said, Mom, they taught us that at the Water Festival that the city and CU put on every year, and I'll never forget that story.

Cate: I’m Cate Stanek.

Leah: And I'm Leah Kelleher. The first voice you heard was Deputy City Manager Chris Meschuk. You're listening to “Let's Talk Boulder. First off, a belated happy new year to everyone listening. It’s been a minute since we put out a new episode, but nonetheless, we’re picking up where we left off.

Cate: Last episode we looked back at the 2013 Flood. For those of you who weren’t in Boulder, or who’ve never heard of it, the 2013 Flood was a historic natural disaster that impacted communities across Boulder County. It damaged homes, roads, trails, businesses... entire parts of our community and neighboring towns. If you haven’t listened to that episode, we suggest you pause this one and go give it a listen before continuing.

Leah: This episode we’re taking a closer look at how we’ve recovered from the flood. And we’re digging into flood mitigation, prevention and preparedness, and lessons learned from the 2013 Flood that have made our response and recovery stronger.

Cate: When we left off, storm clouds had lifted, and first responders were rescuing people who'd been displaced from their homes and moving them to shelters. Once people were safe, folks across the city got to work assessing damage to important infrastructure, and volunteer groups started to form.

Chris: And at the time we had no disaster recovery plan. We had lots of emergency response plans, but no disaster recovery plan. So, we were figuring it out as we went. That very quickly pivoted to, okay, what are the impacts we're seeing in the community? So, it was like hanging on at the beginning. And then it was a lot of conversation of, okay, we have to start to put organization to the chaos that is happening around us.

Mike: Everything is off the rails from a recovery perspective. That's the marathon, not a sprint.

Cate: This is Mike Chard. He leads the Office of Disaster Management which coordinates response and recovery to disasters, like floods, in the City of Boulder and Boulder County.

Leah: This marathon, as Mike put it, started with assessing damage caused by the flood. We talked about this a little bit in our last episode: the city started assembling teams that traveled around Boulder evaluating and recording flood damage to buildings, roads, bridges, critical infrastructure – like sewer pipes – trees... there was a lot that needed to be assessed.

Cate: These assessments were incredibly important, because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (or FEMA), was coming to town. Getting financial assistance from FEMA is a complicated process that requires carefully documenting damage, coordinating with their representatives and following their procedures. It was unlike anything the city had done before.

Chris: So, there was a lot of time just spent trying to learn what we needed to do next. What was great is communities from all over the country reached out and just said, “we went through it. What do you need?”

Mike: I think it took FEMA back a bit that… wow, this is some pretty incredible damage, and it ended up doing $257 million in infrastructure damage to roads, and the power grid and storm sewer and sanitation systems.

Cate: With assessments complete, the city was looking at an incredible amount of damage and a massive bill for repairs. 15% of paved paths, more than a third of our parks, and almost all of our open space trails were damaged by the flood. And that was on top of damage to homes and yards. 14% of Boulder’s households were affected by the flood, causing over $300 million in private property damage.

Leah: The damage felt overwhelming, but with the knowledge of what we needed to repair, we could start building a recovery strategy that guided the next few years.

Chris: It was about a month after the flood, we had the City Council adopt recovery objectives for the city and the community. And then we framed all of our work around those five recovery objectives.

Cate: Those objectives were to help people get assistance, restore and enhance our infrastructure, assist business recovery, focus resources to support recovery efforts, and learn together and plan for the future. This was a great step forward, and repairs and redesigns were already happening – especially to washed out creeks, rivers and roads that could weaken how prepared we were for the next emergency.

Mike: We had goat roads, we called them, you know, two tracks that you couldn't even get a fire truck up. I got assigned to figuring out how we're going to deal with all the creeks and rivers in the county that were gouged out, had blowouts in them because spring runoff was going to happen, and if we didn't get in there and start fixing that, then we were going to have a second problem of flooding once the spring runoff hit. So, you went from that set of problems into the next set of problems.

Cate: One of the first problems was debris. You may recall from last episode that the flood waterlogged homes, tore tree branches, damaged cars and left a layer of mud across some parts of the city. A lot of people were left with water-soaked stuff damaged beyond repair – stuff that needed to be thrown out before it started getting moldy.

Chris: We very quickly realized we had a debris challenge on our hands. And so, we quickly deployed, as a city, dumpsters into some of the city parks. I think we put 17 out in the community, the big giant roll-off dumpsters, and within an hour every single one of them was full and the parking lots were just filling full of stuff. And there was no way you were going to turn people away, right. So, very quickly we realized we were in a much bigger situation here and that we needed to do curbside debris collection.

Cate: At the end of the day, an estimated 720 tons of creek debris were cleared.

Leah: The assessment and repair list went on and on and stretched across our community – from neighborhoods to our trails. Here’s Chad Brotherton, he works on visitor infrastructure with our Open Space and Mountain Parks Department (or OSMP for short).

Chad: Over 100 miles of trails had at least minor damage, and that's out of 145 miles of trails at the time. 40 miles of trails were significantly or severely damaged. Some of those had a three to six-foot-deep rut, so you could literally stand in it, and it was deeper than a person.

Jennelle: We had to have the system closed for many days, weeks, while Chad mentioned we were doing those assessments on the trails. And people, here they were grieving, and they couldn’t get on those trails.

Cate: This is Jennelle Freeston. She oversees our OSMP Volunteer Services Team.

Jennelle: They wanted to get out there. They wanted to walk around. That's how they wanted to be able to process what had just happened. And we were saying no. We had barriers, closures. The majority of the folks did – they went somewhere else, they went to a trail that was still open, but for folks who, maybe the One Two Trail was their trail or Gregory Canyon was their trail or Chapman Drive – these are all trails we had to close down access to…it was another trauma on top of the flood for them. Yes, we had to do those closures – we had to do the assessments in order to get it right with FEMA, that had to happen…we wanted to keep people safe, first and foremost, because there were some really dangerous conditions in there. What we did learn, though, that helped us with COVID – I'm jumping years later – there was a split second when COVID was happening in March…there was a thought, should we shut down the system? And we're like, you know what, no, we can find a way to do this safely. People need to get out on the land when there's any type of disaster going on. It’s difficult to go out there and not just get that bigger perspective. You’re going to hear a bird singing, you’re going to see something you maybe never recognized before, you might meet a new person. It just forces you to get out of your headspace and look for something new – look for a new possibility. Our staff ended up leading 100 hikes to the public after the flood to both interpret what happened and then just to have that space for healing.

Chad: By November 2013, we had opened up 108 miles of trails. Granted, they might not have been in the same condition that they were in the past, but at least they were open to the public and we were getting visitors out there again. And then, by the end of the year, about 95% of our system was open. With what had happened, that's a pretty quick turnaround. So, hats off to all the staff that were here. But we had a completely different system. And we started working with FEMA to identify which projects could qualify for reimbursement. We were looking at probably close to $10 million worth of damage.

Leah: It was clear that it would take years for the city’s open space system to recover from the flood. And, it has been years filled with more than a hundred repair projects across many trails. This brings us to a theme that kept coming up over and over again as we talked to the folks featured in this episode and that is the power of volunteers. As we talked about in our first few episodes, so much of our ability to withstand emergencies is tied to relationships – relationships between neighbors, government agencies, and in the case of the 2013 Flood, entire communities along the Front Range. These relationships allowed Boulder and other communities to quickly react to the flood, clear debris, repair trails... to recover.

Jennelle: Our department really saw firsthand the true power of volunteerism. Even before the last raindrop fell in Boulder County, our phones were ringing off the hook. We had this huge volume of water and then a huge volume of people in support of folks wanting help. Before the end of the year, over 700 volunteers helped on 40 projects and then, within five years, over 1400 volunteers gave over 8000 hours on over 120 projects. Neighbors, community members, individuals, businesses..the volume and how quickly we were turning out these projects was something new to us that we hadn’t learned before.

Chris: There were a lot of community organizations that came together after the flood and new ones that spontaneously formed. The Boulder Mud Slingers was a group that formed on its own to help people dig mud out of their house. And they quickly got thousands of shovels and buckets and rakes. And then they needed a place to store them, and all of a sudden they had a shipping container of stuff behind Target, and then they’re organizing volunteer events to help people clean out their house.

Cate: With the influx of volunteers came concerns around safety. Was it safe for people to be clearing out mud that could be contaminated with harmful chemicals? What if a volunteer got hurt somewhere first responders couldn’t get to? But city staff quickly realized that the best thing local government could do in a situation like this was to get out of the way and let people help each other.

Mike: We learned really quickly; you don't try to control every volunteer group. All we can do is advise. It's unsafe, it's dangerous. We may not be able to get you. There are no roads. If you get hurt, you’re kinda at your own risk.

Cate: And so, hundreds of volunteers rallied to support their neighbors despite the possible hazards.

Jennelle: People were so generous of their time, of their energy, of their skills. Just that human power. Just getting stuff done in one be able to see the impact – some of those projects were very satisfying because you could see at the beginning of this project, ok it looked like this and now we've made a dent.

Chris: That community resilience – that community support for each other is something that we realized was really critical to our community's resilience. And something we focused on fostering after the flood. And it launched the city’s volunteerism program in an organized and kind of amped up way and helped to shape how we did community trainings and education after the flood.

Cate: Now, the city has a volunteer cooperative made up of volunteer coordinators and staff from all city departments who work with community members to match them with volunteer opportunities. It’s essentially a one-stop-shop for local volunteering. We’ll put a link to more info in our show notes.

Ok, so to recap, the rain stopped, damage assessments were collected, debris was cleared, and the city went into repair mode with the help of community organizations, city staff, FEMA and many, many volunteers. Through all of this, we learned a lot. We learned how to work with FEMA, how to better manage debris, and how to get out of the way when volunteers step up to help. It also showed the resilience of our natural systems which are adapted to deal with flooding.

Jennelle: South Boulder Creek was impacted pretty hard, as well as some other smaller wetlands off of Broadway, more towards the southern part of our system in the South Boulder Creek area. So, we had folks coming out literally taking shovels of gravel and trying to get it out of the wetlands and back on to the trail. The open space served as a buffer, just as floodplains serve as a buffer for floodwaters. I mean, there could have been so much more damage to the community if those lands were developed on. Nature's pretty resilient, you know, I mean our lands are adapted to flood and fire. So, it's really us, the humans, that have to get more prepared and better equipped and adapted.

Leah: Yes, and the flood really served as a reminder of how important mitigation work is – work that prevents future flooding and protects our community when natural disasters happen.

Cate: Leah, how would you explain what flood mitigation is to someone who’s never heard of it?

Leah: Good question, I don’t know about you Cate, butI’ve found that the easiest way to wrap my head around it, is to get a sense of what it looks like. Brandon Coleman is an engineer that works on flood mitigation with the city, so I’ll let him explain.

Brandon: Our first step is usually identifying flood risk...knowing how much water we think is going to come down a drainage-way where that water is going to go and does that impact people's properties and structures? And that's a focus for us as a utility, is really trying to minimize the impacts of those flood waters on people. We're actually trying to impact those floodplain boundaries with our projects to pull them away from structures and also major lanes of travel.

Cate: In other words, flood mitigation projects work to protect buildings and roads from flood waters, especially in flood plains, or low-lying areas near rivers and creeks that are more prone to flooding. Usually, flood mitigation means adding things to make a stream more stable and channeling water away from infrastructure, all while trying to maintain how the water would naturally move across the landscape. Maintaining the natural movement of water means more resilient waterways.

Brandon: A really good example of where we've done that is Boulder Creek, so Boulder Creek, particularly through the downtown area, there are engineering features embedded into that channel. But you may not even realize it. If you go down Boulder Creek, like the Whitewater Park, you'll see these big boulders that the water's falling over, and that's really to maintain a stable stream. So, you don't see big movements of sediment or dirt come down the creek, and that creates a much more stable channel. And you'll see those drops even beyond the Whitewater Park. That's where some of those features are, where we're trying to stabilize the stream, but also utilizing the vegetation in the overbank areas where you would see these higher flood waters.

Leah: Next time you’re walking the dog or taking a stroll in downtown Boulder, pay close attention to Boulder Creek and look for jagged rocks along its edge. They help break down the energy of flood waters and keep water contained in its normal channel. There are also piles of rocks that almost look like dams; these structures help control the creek and prevent it from meandering out of its banks during a flood. Our bike paths also serve as flood control, helping funnel water away from properties.

Cate: This flood mitigation work on Boulder Creek was put in place before the 2013 flood. During the flood, these and other flood mitigation tactics were put to the test. And they worked! That’s not to say they were perfect, there was still damage, but so much damage was avoided. And Boulder Creek wasn’t the only place in town that showed the value of flood mitigation.

Brandon: Goose Creek is a really good example, particularly downstream of Folsom, of where a flood mitigation project was completed in the early 2000s, essentially, and actually functioned really well. A lot of people were protected with that project in place.

Cate: Since the 2013 flood, the city has put a lot of work into different flood mitigation projects around town. Many of them repair damage left by the 2013 flood while also strengthening resilience to future floods in those areas. One you can check out is along Bear Canyon Creek at Ithaca and Wildwood.

Brandon: There was a historic culvert that is not in use anymore, wasn't needed, but it is a sharp obstruction in our floodway. So, we were able to remove that culvert and replace it with a more natural open channel that increased the conveyance and also allowed for stormwater improvements in that area.

Cate: We have a bunch of other flood mitigation projects featured on our website. We’ll drop a link in our show notes for those who want to dig into the details. There has also been a lot of work to make our trails more resilient.

Chad: The flood, it happened all at once. So, you could say like 10, 20 years of erosion – you know, 100 years of erosion, happened all at once. We learned exponentially because of that. Bridges blew out. Trail roads were significantly at risk, and that was where we saw some of the biggest rutting. And then our legacy trails, which were trails that were never fully designed to sustainable standards, those were a higher risk and had more issues.

Leah: These sustainable standards try to divert water away from the trail using natural features, like rocks. But sometimes it’s really hard to keep water away from trails – especially on steep trails.

Chad: It has a lot to do with how the trail sits on the landscape and either complements the landscape or is almost trying to work against it. When it's working against it, it's too steep. Legacy trails have a tendency to be much steeper. And they collect the water and funnel the water down the trail. Looking at our system as a whole, we try to honor the want for some of those steeper experiences. But then, whenever we can, we try to design so that we can make our system more resilient, and definitely a nod to that would be the Mount Sanitas Trail. We're trying to keep that there on the hillside, but it's very expensive to keep it on the hillside, and it's not the most resilient. Ideally with a sustainable trail, you have a trail that contours the landscape and doesn't change the hydrology of the landscape, it ebbs and flows into the contours and it sheds water naturally, and it doesn't collect the water.

Leah: You may already be getting a sense of how much planning – of how much thought goes into flood mitigation projects.

Cate: There are many perspectives that shape how flood mitigation projects happen on and off our trails. From water engineers to ecologists, the city tries to take a holistic approach to mitigation, because often these projects can come with a lot of impacts and tradeoffs. Especially for folks living and working in areas where flood mitigation projects are taking place. Here’s Joe Taddeucci. Joe leads the city’s Utilities Department, which handles all things water distribution, wastewater collection and treatment, and infrastructure planning.

Joe: Any time that we're thinking about a project, there can be significant land use implications or private property impacts. When projects are under construction and when dirt is piled up and front-end loaders and excavators and bulldozers are moving around... it is really impactful. There's a lot our engineering team can do to work with people to mitigate impacts. We put a lot of special effort into restoration to make sure that things come back naturally. And there are things that have been completed in my career, and I saw them during the construction phase, and now 15 years later, you would never know that there was a project there. The community will sometimes talk about when we bring up a flood project is, “this project is in this part of town, and I live on the other side of town. It does nothing for me. It doesn't help me.” And I totally understand how people are looking through that lens. There's an obligation to take those concerns to heart and work with empathy for people who are facing those impacts, but there is an element of doing these projects and developing them for the greater good.

Cate: Taking concerns to heart means a community engagement process for each mitigation project – providing space for city staff to talk with community members, hear their concerns, and work together to address them.

Brandon: We do want to involve the community in that process. We know these big projects have lots of impacts, so we really do want to hear from the community and try and work with them. And that's really our goal as a utility, to help us prepare for climate change and be resilient when these natural disasters do hit.

Cate: It’s not a perfect process. Sometimes acting for the greater good means removing trees, reshaping the land and doing other things that may not feel or look good right away. But the end goal is to protect each other. All of these flood mitigation strategies and projects have culminated in what we call our Comprehensive Flood and Stormwater plan, or CFS for short. The plan guides how the city will manage stormwater and flooding for years to come, and it’s the first of its kind to be informed by equity and climate change.

Brandon: With 16 major drainage ways, there's a lot of work to do across the city. And before the CFS, we didn't have a way to prioritize those projects across the different drainage ways.

Cate: There’s a lot that goes into how the city prioritizes flood mitigation projects, but what is considered when identifying those priorities and how priorities are calculated has evolved quite a bit over the last few years. For a long time, we used a calculation called cost-benefit analysis.

Brandon: That's based on property damage and values of property. And in Boulder, the values of property can skew those results when you look around the different communities, so we’ve really brought that equity lens in.

Leah: With a cost-benefit analysis, the higher the property value, the higher the perceived benefit to do mitigation work in that area. In other words, cost benefit analyses prioritize the wealthiest parts of town.

Joe: Parts of the city where there could be $5 million homes. And so, if you compare that to a single residence in a mobile home community, it's never going to compete. In our new plan, we have 12 factors. One of them is social vulnerability index, which is where equity comes in. And we polled the community on how they wanted us to rank those factors. And equity is one of the highest factors. And so, we've applied that formula to all of the flood projects and how they rank, and they wind up differently than they would if we just solely did a benefit-cost ratio.

Joe: The city has the racial equity plan and sometimes people can struggle to get their heads around like, what does this really mean? And I think the way we've applied some of the tools from that equity plan to flood prioritization is a super practical example of just how that can influence our work at the city and how it can benefit the community in different ways.

Leah: Another focus of the new plan is language accessibility, which of course is closely tied to equity. These gaps became clear in 2013.

Joe: People had flooding in their homes and they went to access emergency shelter and weren't able to just because the instructions were only in English. Some of them went back and stayed in their flooded homes. And so, as part of our racial equity plan, we have a group called the Community Connectors that can help us connect with people who... English is not their first language… and really bring them into the engagement, whether it's flood projects or other things the city is doing to have them share their experience and their needs. And so, we're constantly learning and trying to adapt. A big part of our comprehensive plan has to do with public outreach and communication.

Cate: Public outreach can look like emergency notifications on the Boulder Office of Disaster Management website or in-person events with city staff.

Joe: And for all natural disasters, there are things that community members need to do to prepare themselves for floods. The city infrastructure can't solve everything. And so having a personal plan for your own household and your family – just how you’ll communicate, where you will go, how you will travel, getting to higher ground, having important documents in order. There's a new normal. We have to prepare ourselves for natural disasters... they're going to occur more frequently.

Mike: Since the Fourmile Fire in 2010, the county has had only one month, and it was August of 2011, that we weren't in a recovery or response… to kind of put that in perspective.

Cate: With this new normal comes a need for all of us to prepare.

Mike: Get signed up for emergency alerts. Go to, and we got everything there. Don't wait for an alert to tell you to do something. If you feel like it's bad and it's raining, go to higher ground. If you feel you need to evacuate, leave early, get to a place of safety, and then try to figure things out.

Leah: There are a ton of emergency preparedness resources on our website to help you get started. We’ve dropped a bunch of links in our show notes, go check them out. At the end of the day, so much of this episode, and emergency preparedness, comes back to the theme that we discussed earlier, which is the power of volunteers, but really, more broadly, the power of knowing your neighbors…knowing the people who live near you, the people who you walk by every day.

Chris: The most important thing is as a community, how do we support each other in those times of crisis, in those times of disaster. And, and we've seen that in the disasters we've experienced as a community that the community comes together. And the more we can as a community foster that as our culture, that we're going to help each other, the better off we're all going to be.

Cate: We wanted to close out this 2013 Flood mini-series with a poem submitted for our 2013 Flood commemoration last year. Here’s an excerpt from “Ten Years Later at the Anne U. White Trail” by Erin Robertson. Again, thank you to everyone who contributed to the commemoration last year.

Our 2013 selves were so unprepared for disaster.

We thought that alone might be our

generation's test.

It’s a blessing we didn’t know

what else was to come:

Calwood and Marshall,

pandemic and smoke,

isolation and salmon-colored sun.

And today

most of us touched by the flood are still here,

trying to live thoughtful lives

that go with the current, not against.

Today Fourmile Canyon Creek is so quiet

it’s nearly dry

the sky is true cobalt blue,

the clouds pure white,

unobscured by smoke.

Pygmy nuthatches beep all around us

and the breeze sounds through the ponderosa crowns.

All is peaceful,

beauty about us in all directions.

It’s a lovely day to breathe with the trees,

to accept this gift of sunlight.

You can read Erin’s full poem and more on our flood commemoration website. The link is in the show notes.

Leah: This episode of “Let’s Talk Boulder” was produced and edited by me, Leah Kelleher...

Cate: With the help of me, Cate Stanek, our City of Boulder colleagues and our friends at the Carnegie Library. A special thanks to all the folks featured in this episode – Jennelle Freeston, Joe Taddeucci, Chad Brotherton, Brandon Coleman, Chris Meschuk and Mike Chard.

Leah: Also, again, a big thank you to all the folks who shared their stories and poetry with us. Be sure to check out our show notes for links to our 2013 Flood commemoration website, flood preparedness resources, music attributes and more.

We're going back ten years to remember the 2013 Flood, how it impacted our community, and the courage and care of neighbors who stepped up to help each other.

Special guests in this episode (City of Boulder staff):

  • Joe Taddeucci, Director of Utilities
  • Chris Meschuk, Deputy City Manager
  • Jennelle Freeston, Deputy Director of Community Connections and Partnerships for Open Space and Mountain Parks
  • Brandon Coleman, Engineering Project Manager
  • Chad Brotherton, Visitor Infrastructure Senior Manager for Open Space and Mountain Parks
  • Mike Chard, Director of the Office of Disaster Management for the City of Boulder and Boulder County.

This episode was hosted by Cate Stanek and Leah Kelleher. It was also produced by Leah Kelleher. Theme music is Wide Eyes by Chad Crouch/Podington Bear. Please see our website for full music attributions.

Related Resources:

Music in this episode (adapted):

By the Pond (Instrumental), Risers, Dim, Ink and Afternoons (Instrumental) by Chad Crouch/Podington Bear. All are licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License or Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


Travis Weed, Frasier Meadows Retirement Community: I mean, when it first started, I mean, it was just, it seemed it rained, just constantly raining, dark and rainy.

Tara Schoedinger, Mayor of Jamestown: I was driving home from work and talking to my father. Told him it was raining cats and dogs. Got home and we checked the levels of the creek. And, everything was rising and we started getting ready for bed.

Art Trevino, Longmont Resident: Around twelve o’clock, I got a call from my son, David. And he said, "Dad, we're starting to get water in the basement." ... You know, I was concerned but I figured with the electricity still on and the sump pump working it wasn’t going to be a problem. Well around two thirty, three o’clock, he calls me and again and he says “Dad, the power just went off." I said, “Oh crap.”

Renée Williams, Boulder resident: I started to hear this gurgle.

And then all of a sudden, in the bathtub—water! Well, it was more than just water, but it looked like water at first. And it started to come up in the bathtub. Then more started to come up, more started to come up and then it started to come up out of our sinks. So then I started….

Call in voice (anonymous): ...the water was coming up through the drain on our patio in the basement level condo. So, we were giving up every hour throughout the night and throughout the day to shop-vac the water and prevent it from getting into our condo and ruining the flooring. And I remember when we would get up and you'd walk out the door and you just hear complete silence. And the condo was on 28th Street, so not a street that’s ever silent.

Tara Schoedinger, Mayor of Jamestown: My husband—we heard the gulch run. It sounds like a freight train, we’d heard it before. So he ran out saying, “There goes the gulch!” He came back about thirty seconds later saying, “Joey’s house collapsed. Call 911.”

Travis Weed, Frasier Meadows Retirement Community: When I got my first phone started off minor. Patio outside the drain was clogged, and this was on the garden level, and the water ran up the outside of the sliding glass door about three feet high. So, the water was actually blocked just by this small, small door. You know, it looked like, it was like a fish tank. And then other parts of the building started; it was kind of like a domino effect. It just got from small to worse. First it was a room. then it was a hallway. Then it was one apartment. Then it was another apartment in assisted living. And then we found ourselves evacuating assisted living, because the ceilings were just... every one of them was starting to kind of cave in slowly.

Carrie Gonzales, Lyons resident: I can remember looking down on the river as it was happening. It was a few days after, well after the rain had lightened a little. My friend Meryl lives on the cliff right above my house, and she allowed me to go up there and watch. And so we watched the river rise and watched our place go under. We watched cars float. And we could see my bug. It went under my VW classic bug, went under. And I thought that was the first thing that was going to float, because of the old commercials.

[Standard Intro]

Leah: I'm Leah Kelleher,

Cate: I’m Cate Stanek,

Leah: And you're listening to Let's Talk Boulder, a City of Boulder podcast exploring our community, one conversation at a time.

2023 marks ten years since our community experienced a historic flood. So, this episode, we’re going back in time, back to September 2013, a month marked by constant and heavy rainfall in our region. More than 18 inches of rain fell along the Front Range, that’s a year’s-worth of rain in only eight days!

Cate: And as you’d imagine, or as you might know, this caused widespread flooding that destroyed homes, trails, roads, businesses...all sort of infrastructure. Communities across Boulder County – from Lyons to Superior – were impacted. We call this event the 2013 Flood.

Leah: The voices you heard at the top of this episode are from interviews collected by the Carnegie Library Oral History program. They’re folks from Boulder, Jamestown, Lyons and Longmont reflecting on their experiences of the flood shortly after it happened. 10 years later, we are also reflecting on the flood, remembering stories of community resilience, and looking at how far we’ve come, quite a bit.

As with our first couple episodes, we wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the many emotions that may come up for folks as they listen to this episode. The 2013 Flood was a traumatic event, and it shook our community and other communities nearby. So, please do what you need to take care of yourself as you listen.

Cate: Now, before diving into flood preparedness and mitigation, we want to set the scene for what happened. We know not everyone was in Boulder in 2013, so we want to give you an inside look at the flood through personal stories, and from experts who were on the ground during the disaster and our recovery from it.

Leah: Yes, and we’re telling this story to honor all the ways neighbors stepped up to help each other. Together, we’ve remained strong. We’ve learned a lot and we’ve taken those lessons to prepare for future emergencies – whether it’s floods, wildfires or whatever else the climate crisis throws at us. So, let’s start from the beginning... We hear references to the 2013 Flood, and we’ve made some already, but what actually happened that September.

Mike: The days leading up to it, it was really hot. And August was hot, it was that sort of brutal heat. And prior to the flood, we ended up getting rain. So there was a week of storms there that were occurring.

Cate: This is Mike Chard. He leads the Office of Disaster Management (or ODM for short). The ODM oversees disaster services in the City of Boulder and Boulder County. They played a key role during and after the flood by coordinating disaster response and recovery, sending out alerts to the community and much, much more.

Mike: And the storms saturated the ground, kinda set up the conditions for what we started experiencing during the flood.

Leah: At this point, it’s Sept. 11. It was a Wednesday.

Mike: The afternoon, we started picking up some rain and seeing some things develop, so, I had staff come back here to the EOC and set things up, get into our weather monitoring profile and get ahold of the weather service and find out what it looked like. And at that point they were like, well, it could be bad. We’re still watching it. Things were setting up…just manage where it goes. And then around five o’clock that night, we knew things were starting to look weird.

Jennelle: A bunch of us from Open Space and Mount Parks, we were driving back from a conference in Crested Butte. You know, the rain was pretty steady and we're all like, wow, okay, this is a good storm. And once we got into Golden, some of the vehicles we were in, a lot of us were following each other, and we could see each other, hydroplaning a little bit in front of us, going through these huge puddles.

Leah: This is Jennelle Freeston. She oversees our Open Space and Mountain Park’s volunteer services team, who connect with park visitors, letting people know where to go and why the place they're hiking is so special. OK, back to Jennelle’s story.

Jennelle: And the clouds were so dark that afternoon, that first afternoon, like in our gut, we were just like, hmm, what is going on? I wonder if this is going to turn into something. It sure did.

Chris: I actually was out of town, and I was waiting to come home. I was flying home that day and had been getting alerts about the rain that was coming and... flash flood watches. 

Cate: This is Chris Meschuk, he’s our Deputy City Manager. At the time of the flood, he worked in our Planning Department on Historic Preservation.

Chris: And then I got on the airplane, and when we landed in Denver, I turned to my phone on, and it didn't stop buzzing for like five minutes straight.

Mike: At that point, we weren't really sure this was going to be the four-and-a-half-day flood that it turned out to be, but it was definitely starting to rain hard. And then I had a staff member that needed to get home and I was like, if we're going to take you home...we got to go now so I can get back.

We didn't get home. We got up to, I think it was about 75th and Valmont and then a flash flood warning went out. So, we had to turn around, but we were seeing surface runoff all over the place. We turned around came back and joined the rest of the staff.

And then, that’s when it all started. And then from there, we didn't leave here for the next two weeks. We were pretty much in the EOC 24/7, dealing with the response and then the aftermath until we could get into a more formal recovery.

Leah: The EOC, or the Emergency Operations Center, is the place where staff from across the county gather during an emergency to send out communications, think about the emergency alerts you get on social media when an emergency is unfolding. They also coordinate disaster response to help communities who are facing emergencies respond and recover as quickly as possible. And that looks like coordinating between governments, non-profits and volunteer agencies.

Mike: Things started happening at our 911 center and the 911 systems from here to Longmont were getting calls for service – people getting stranded, basements flooding, reports of cars floating. And it was just sort of the unleashing of the skies for the next four and a half days. And we continued to just kind of react.

Leah: When Mike says “react,” he’s talking about sending out emergency notifications and fielding calls from the community –

Mike: We started pushing out alerts and activating sirens and doing the things that we do to try to alert the community and still, at this time, had no idea this was going to be a four-and-a-half-day rain event.

The thought was this will be a bad night. Flash flood, wake up in the morning, we'll see all the damage. We'll start getting into recovery. But it just kept coming, wave after wave.

Chris: After pacing around in my backyard and in the house for a day, they needed people to help in the call center at the EOC. 

Cate: This is Chris, again.  

Chris: And so, I signed up for some shifts, then spent 12 hours taking phone calls. It’s in the basement of the Emergency Operations Center. And it’s just, you know, a big, long conference table with a bunch of people sitting around it with telephones and you didn't hang the phone up, you just pushed the button, you know, to hang up the phone, and the next call came through and you let go and the next call came to you. It was nonstop.

And what was really intense about it was most of the phone calls we were getting were missing persons reports. While at the same time, we were getting updates about what people are seeing in the field and a bunch of the missing persons phone calls that we were getting that night, because I did the overnight shift, were outside of Longmont, up Longmont dam road. And at the same time, we were getting reports that the dam may have overtopped or collapsed. 


So, you were taking these reports from people that didn't know where their loved ones were. And at the same time, we didn't know if the dam had survived. It turns out it did. So, everything was okay. But that was really intense.

The other wild experience was answering the phone and the people calling are people you know. So, a woman I know that that lived up in the mountains...and she was out of town and trying to figure out how to get home. And there were, at that point there were no roads going east-west in Boulder County, in the mountains, that were still passable…

Mike: Everywhere you’re driving and turning your head, you're seeing water rolling over roadways and you're seeing the drainage gullies next to the roads just not full of water, but raging water, and

to have literally as we found out through the four and a half days the entire county from north to south, east to west totally banked in with overcast clouds that were just bringing up bands of moisture and wringing it out along the foothills and flooding Erie and to Longmont, to Gold Hill and City of Boulder, just everywhere it was flooding. And then the other ten counties around us.

Brandon: That first night when we got that first really hard rain and I got woken up at about one in the morning and the storm sewer manhole lid had blown off and it was bouncing across the street. So, it woke me up, and that was kind of the moment I had a realization that this was going to be a big event.

Leah: This is Brandon Coleman. Brandon is an engineer that focuses on flood mitigation with the city. He was living in Boulder during the flood.  

OK. We’ve talked about a lot already. But I’d love to take a step back. Why did this happen? Why was the flooding so intense?

Cate: Well, to understand why the flooding happened, we need to understand our water system. Here’s Joe Taddeucci. Joe leads the city’s public Utilities Department – everything from water distribution to wastewater collection and treatment, and infrastructure planning. At the time of the 2013 Flood, he managed the city’s water system – so, he knows the ins and outs of how water flows in Boulder.

Joe: Boulder Creek is the biggest drainage. It's a stream that comes down from the mountains and it has to do with topography…the water follows the elevation and flows downhill, and to the valleys, and so the low parts of town.

Leah: You can think about a drainage as water that flows from the mountains to lower elevations and then collects there in the form of rivers and creeks, like our Boulder Creek.

Joe: We have 16, basically creeks, that run through the city. And because of our proximity to the mountains and the foothills, it's well known that Boulder is seen as the number one flood risk in the state of Colorado.

Cate: That’s why we stress emergency preparedness and make sure that you know your plan. All the water flowing down from the mountains collects here in Boulder since we’re at the base of them. Most of the time this isn’t a problem because the water is able to continue moving down our creeks off to other places like Louisville and Erie. It can be hard to tell if something is a drainage because they don’t always have water in them.

Brandon: People may see something that looks like a grass-lined ditch or something and that may be a major drainageway in the city.

Cate: Sometimes we see larger amounts of water come down from the mountains when all the winter snow that’s been collecting up there in our reservoirs melts. That extra water often gets “discharged,” meaning it spills over and makes its way down into our creeks. Unless we’ve received a large amount of rain, we aren’t too worried about this extra water. Our system and soil can handle it.

Joe: And then as it gets warmer in the summer, we start actually using that storage in the reservoirs and the levels drop. Well, in the September 13th flood, there was so much rain that Barker Reservoir filled back up and spilled over the spillway like it does during spring runoff. The runoff that happened was so intense from the rainstorm that it just washed a bunch of mud and sediment into that canal that comes from Lyons and goes to Boulder Reservoir, kinda winds through the agricultural fields there.

Leah: All of that mud and sediment caused flooding as water, stuck with nowhere to go, started overflowing out of the canal and into the surrounding area. And a similar overflow happened at South Boulder Creek, which is another drainage. The water that forms that drainage flows from the Gross Reservoir up in the mountains down to South Boulder Creek.

Joe: South Boulder Creek comes in from the south of town…and it comes down through a steep valley and then it hits a big, broad, wide floodplain.

Cate: For those who are unfamiliar with water lingo, a floodplain is an area of low-lying ground next to a river. Because of this, they’re more prone to flooding. The areas around South Boulder Creek and Wonderland Creek are also floodplains.

Joe: And what happened in 2013 is US 36 effectively acted like a dam. Water started to spill over the banks of South Boulder Creek, and it filled up the wide floodplain to the west. And then in the middle of the night, it kinda reached the capacity of what the wall formed by US 36 could hold back, and it overtopped 36. And so, some of the streets across to the north, like Qualla Drive, became raging rivers.

Brandon: Wonderland Creek also got hit really hard in the flood.

Leah: Downtown Boulder was also severely flooded. Here’s Jennelle again.

Jennelle: Just seeing the footage on the news...seeing footage of Boulder Police. I remember at the corner of Arapahoe and Foothills, how deep the water was. Knowing that there were newscasters in Boulder reporting on it, showing that water funneling down the bike paths and the greenways.

Joe: You see those events on CNN and it’s always a close-up of the disaster. And so being here, seeing the Boulder Creek area and just the massive flooding like the water level under the Broadway Bridge was like a foot below the bottom of the bridge. And then you could drive around to other parts of town, and it was like nothing happened. 

Jennelle: Our minds were ready, like Boulder knew, Boulder knew we were a city that's high risk of flood because of all the major creeks that funnel into a common area.

But I think what we weren't prepared for is how all the little tributaries and streams that we didn’t know were still there, that were just covered up with the landscape came back to life. The water was just looking for so many places to go. So I think, really, it hit me when I was sitting at home watching that footage and like, wow, the water is just coming from all places and it's not stopping.

Leah: It’s hard to put words to how intense this flood was. But it was so intense that we call it a 100-year flood. Now, this a kind of a confusing concept – at least it was for me before I knew what it actually meant. I’d always assumed that 100-year floods happened every 100 years, but that’s not quite right.

Brandon: A 100-year flood is a very kind of misleading term, but it's really, statistically, it's a 1% chance of happening in any year. And then a 500 year is a 0.2% chance of happening in any given year.

Leah: So, there was a 1% chance of the 2013 flood happening that year. And it was a one in 1000 or a 0.001% chance of getting the amount of rain that we got that year.

Cate: Not only was there such a low chance of this happening in 2013, circumstances had to be kind of perfect for this to happen. Between the burn scar that allowed this flooding, that allowed a flash flood, and the weather systems had to be perfect. It just all kind of came together in a perfect package to create a one in one thousand chance flood.

Leah: All stats aside, the question that keeps coming up for me is, how prepared, how ready were we for the 2013 Flood?

Cate: You know, we were actually pretty well prepared and there was quite a bit of flood mitigation infrastructure already in place before the flood. And we’ll talk about flood mitigation more in our next episode. But, much of this infrastructure worked and prevented much more catastrophic flood damage.

We were also more organized because of previous emergencies like the Four Mile Canyon Fire in 2010, which burned over 6,000 acres of land about five miles west of downtown Boulder. The flood risk created by the burn scar left by that fire motivated us to get ready for a potential flood.

Mike: And that burn scar created a tremendous flood risk to not just the residents in Four Mile Canyon, but people remember there was some flooding that occurred that came out onto Two Mile Canyon Creek, which comes out on Lee Hill.

When you get these burn scars that are on steep slopes, it changes the whole risk profile of the community. But we had to adjust them. We had to build a whole new alert warning system for the community around that. We had to be able to alert people faster.

We had to work with our first response agencies, the fire departments, City of Boulder Police and Fire, the Sheriff's department. We had a lot of meetings on creating flood plans around that. So, there was already a lot of integration within that county and city response community, so when we got to the 2013 flood, there was already some DNA in us that we were able to look at storms differently and weather.

Cate: Those relationships were critical to the initial response to the flood and recovery the following days, months and really years. We’re still recovering. This kept coming up as we talked to people – relationships made rescue and recovery possible. And those relationships went beyond government staff, beyond agencies and local organizations working together… they also included your neighbors. Here’s Joe again.

Joe: The Fraser Meadows retirement home was in a really bad situation and staff there and emergency responders were having to carry people out in the middle of the night.

Leah: Here’s Travis Weed. Travis worked at the Frasier Meadows Retirement Community during the flood.

Travis Weed, Frasier Meadows Retirement Community: We evacuated, I think it was over 50 residents, I think like in 20 minutes, something like that. So, it was pretty incredible. Some residents that were in health care were in their beds, and we weren’t able to get them to a wheelchair, so we rolled the whole beds to the health care lobby and then got them in a chair from there. Then we had to go outside. The outside was the worst part, because it was pitch black. There was no power. The power went out. So, we transported these people through water—two and three feet high—in pitch black.

Leah: Meanwhile, first responders were getting ready to take to the skies and start rescuing people who couldn’t be reached by road because of all the flooding.

Mike: We were calling for helicopters because we knew we lost roads. Boulder Airport became the helo base for our air rescue operations.

Cate: It continued to rain all through Friday the 13th.

Mike: And then Saturday the sky started to clear. And then we unleashed the helicopters, and it looked like just a, hornet's nest in the skies with helicopter sorties going up and down canyons, doing rescues. And then we were getting search crews in. While all those rescues were happening, we also had shelters set up so as people were getting rescued we are moving them into shelters and animal shelters.

Chris: It’s City of Boulder and Boulder County employees that staff the call center in times of disaster. After I finished that 12-hour shift, I came upstairs out of the EOC and on the TV screens was a live video feed of the Boulder Municipal Airport and the Army National Guard helicopters. 


And I was standing in the back of the room and the deputy police chief was standing there, and he leans over and he goes, “have you seen that?” and I said, “yeah, Dave, I see it on the screen. He's like, “no, have you seen it?” I'm like, “yeah I’m looking at it right now”. And he said, “No, have you seen it?” And I’m like “well, what do you mean?” He said, “have you been there in person?” And I said, “no.” And he pulled out his cell phone and he called a phone number. And he said, “I have a city official who needs to be escorted to the airport.” And I’m like “no, Dave, like I don’t need to be a tourist right like…” “It’s OK,” he said “no, you have to go see it.”

And about 10 minutes later, an officer arrived, probably thinking that he was going to escort some hotshot, you know, a politician or something. And here's me with, like, my backpack, hadn't slept all night, and he took me out there...and

You watched helicopters land that were picking up people who were stranded, that lived in the mountains and coming off the back of a helicopter with all their personal belongings that they could carry – their dogs, their cats, their kids through this kind of tunnel of wildland firefighters that were assisting in that operation, funneling them into an airplane hangar where they were being kind of triaged and intake was being done and then loading them on to a school bus and driving them to a shelter. 


And it was one of the most impactful experiences I've ever had. And it was in that moment, that I realized how bad the flood really was. We learned later that it was the largest aerial evacuation since Hurricane Katrina... at the time.

Mike: People were getting rescued or moving to shelters or animal shelters. And all of the things you do, we call it consequence management in a disaster to help support the community as they've lost their homes or need those sort of safety net services.

And the City of Boulder was close to losing the main feeder line into the sewer plant. So, we had to deal with that during those four days. And, people were dealing with sewer back up problems in their homes.

Joe: All of the sewage in the city goes through a collection system starting at people's houses and it goes through a series of larger pipes and eventually gets to a main sewer pipe that brings the material to the wastewater plant. And Boulder Creek to the ground around that main sewer pipe and exposed it. And we had this massive raging river and just an exposed pipe. We were able to get the river under control and do a really intense emergency repair.

There were sewer backups all over the place. People, I think, are used to seeing the big cast iron manholes in the street. And those are entry points for runoff and rainwater. And we have old clay pipes in the system. And so, when the ground gets saturated, the water can get in that way.

Cate: Or, in some cases, those manhole covers were blown off by large rocks rolling down the foothills. When those covers flew off, water started to funnel into the hole, causing more sewer problems. But, our sewer system was only one of many impacts.

Chris: The amount of sediment that had come in the floodwaters. I mean, the park here in Central Park, it was just caked in mud. The library parking lot was…three quarters of it was covered in mud and silt and the underpass under the Broadway bridge was filled three quarters of the way with sediment.

And then there were so many people whose houses flooded either from floodwaters or from either groundwater coming up through their basement or wastewater coming in back into their house, that people started emptying their houses and their basements out into their driveways.

Mike: And then there's woody debris and gravel that’s a sediment collection around bridges. And then bridges are blown out and all this debris is laying around. And then you get all these homes flooded – thousands and thousands of homes across the whole county. And they're cutting up their carpet and their drywall, bringing it out to the curbside.

A house tipped over upside down in the middle of a creek. So, you've got household hazardous waste. How do you get a house out of the middle of a creek? We didn't have a good debris plan, and we had to make it as we went.

Cate: Dealing with all this damage and debris called for a damage assessment. In other words, we had to know what we were dealing with before we could clean up and rebuild our community and start to recover. But, at the time, the only way to make those assessments was to get folks out on the ground, in the field, and looking at the damage.

Mike: Because of the Four Mile Fire, we put some effort into building a damage assessment team. There’s so much that needed to be assessed and they went out, and I think it was a series of three to four days, they had all the damage assessment completed.

Chris: Because the flood impacts were so widespread across the community. We really didn't know how bad it was. We were still doing damage assessment on city infrastructure and trying to just kind of stabilize our infrastructure, getting roads open, assessing bridges to make sure they were safe, restoring power to the water treatment plant.

We ran water treatment for days on generator power, nearly lost water service to the whole city. And if you lose water, you don't have a city anymore. But the main sewer pipe to the whole city was floating in Boulder Creek with 50 million gallons a day running through it.

Luckily, it didn't break. So it was like, hanging on at the beginning. And then, it was a lot of conversation of, okay, we have to start to put organization to the chaos happening around us.

Cate: So when the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA showed up, some of Mike’s crew took them to see the damage.

Mike: And they took them up to the canyons and took them to the edge of the road. And they're looking at this cliff and looking at nothing there for as far as the eye can see around the bend. They’re like “oh my god, how does this, this is crazy flooding.” And you know, there were residences that unfortunately were no longer at the same altitude or longitude, latitude or wiped out, just completely, no longer there to show.

I think it took FEMA back a bit that, wow, this is some pretty incredible damage and it ended up doing $257 million in infrastructure damage to roads and power grid and storm sewer and sanitation systems.

Leah: Roads, buildings, and critical infrastructure – like sewer pipes – weren't the only things being assessed. There was also a need to assess our trails, bridges on those trails and all the roads leading to them. Here’s Jennelle again along with Chad Brotherton. They both work for our Open Space and Mountain Parks Department, or OSMP for short, and they played big roles in recovering our trails. Chad is the visitor infrastructure senior manager.

Chad: And what does that mean? Means I oversee and am responsible for the trails, trailheads and signs programs for open space and mountain parks.

Cate: Some of the hardest hit parts of Boulder were our trails.

Chad: 40 miles of trails were significantly or severely damaged from the flood. And, some of those, just to kind of visualize a little more, some of those had a three- to six-foot-deep rut. So, you could literally stand in it. It was deeper than a person. Over 100 miles of trails had at least minor damage. And that's out of 145 miles of trails at the time. So, the system was just blown away by the impacts of this.

Jennelle: The McClintock Trail behind the auditorium in the Chautauqua area so near and dear to so many visitors' hearts and residents of that area. And that evening, what we hear is that for folks that live in the cottages right behind the creek there, it sounded like...trains running through, but there were rocks the size of cars, small cars, tumbling down that drainage.

And again, this was a creek that was probably, gosh, only two feet wide that became truly a raging river. And there's a stone bridge right at the base of that part of that trail. And a lot of the boulders backed up against that bridge. Totally destroyed that bridge. Staff and residents shortly after the flood, they were calling it the Hero Bridge, because our thought is that if that bridge wasn't there to stop those rolling boulders, they would have continued to roll down and could definitely have impacted some of the homeowners further down or even the auditorium.

I get emotional, it was... we could have never guessed that would have happened. It was just mind boggling.

And going back now, the vegetation is growing back, we’ve had restoration projects, but in that moment, it looked like a scar, a scar on the earth.

It just felt…we were gutted. This beautiful, tranquil, delicate place that was just...I mean, we had to get huge land movers, gigantic construction, you know, backhoes and dump trucks to get in there and move that stuff out.

Leah: Once they were able to safely get to trails, OSMP teams started to go in and assess the damage and make repairs.

Chad: You learn how to read trails, you know, through experience and what water is doing, what’s happening with the trails. And it’s like learning a new language, right. And as soon as you crack it a little bit you get to see, what does water do on these trails? And, even in 2015, and still to this day, there's times where I'm out on the system and my mind is completely blown with what I see the flood had done.

The signature of the flood is so prevalent on our system still. You know, as trail professionals, we just see it a little differently because we can read into those details a little bit more. And it's just absolutely shocking what happened.

Bridges blew out. Trail roads were significantly at risk. And that was where we saw some of the biggest rutting. And then our legacy trails, which were trails that were never fully designed to sustainable standards, those were higher risk.

Cate: We’ll talk more about those “sustainable standards” for trails in the next episode, but essentially, they try to divert water away from the trail using natural features, like rocks.

Leah: OK. I want to come back to stories from people who lived through the flood – back to the human impact...the ways families and friends across Boulder County were shook by losses. Let’s go back to the night everything started to escalate.

Tara Schoedinger, Mayor of Jamestown: My husband—we heard the gulch run.

Cate: This is Tara Schoedinger. She was the Mayor of Jamestown at the time.

Tara: It sounds like a freight train – we’d heard it before. So, he ran out saying, “There goes the gulch!” He came back about thirty seconds later saying, “Joey’s house collapsed. Call 911.” So, I called 911, and ordered up every resource I could think of to order up—Boulder Emergency Services, Left Hand, paramedics, road crews, lights, everything.

They tried three different times to come up and recover Joe. First time realized that they needed bigger equipment. Second time got called off because of weather. And then the third time, they recovered him. And, we had asked to spend a little bit of time with him [voice breaking with emotion], which they let us do. So, we had a small little memorial for him here…

Leah: Joey was one of several we lost. In honor of those lives lost, let’s take a moment to remember them.

As you’ve been hearing, our community experienced a lot of damage and loss, but we also saw neighbors helping neighbors – incredible moments of kindness that really showcase how resilient we are and hopefully continue to be. It is so important to come together and remember and honor those examples of community care and continue to learn from them as we prepare for the future, because we’re gonna see more extreme events.

And so, how do we hold on to community care? How do we continue to know each other and build relationships to help us withstand and really stand resilient in the face of whatever comes our way.

Mike: There was a lot of community heroes out there that day as there is in every disaster.

Cate: Katie Hanczaryk was one of those community heroes. At the time, she worked at the Frasier Meadows Retirement Community.

Katie Hanczaryk, Frasier Meadows Retirement Community: It was just exhausting. You know, at the end of the day, I was just wiped out, and would go home and cry, and just try to take care of myself in any way that I could. I just slept and worked. That was it. And just try to provide comfort and care for everybody.

Jennelle: Even before the last raindrop fell in Boulder County, our phones were ringing off the hook. We had this huge volume of water and then a huge volume of people in support, of folks wanting to help. Neighbors, community members, individuals, businesses. The volume was just astounding.

And before the end of the year, over 700 volunteers, helped on 40 projects and then within five years, over 1400 volunteers gave over 8,000 hours on over 120 projects.

Renée Williams, Boulder resident: You know, the only way we got back into our home as quickly as we did was because people read about us, people knew somehow about us, I’m not quite sure how, you know, maybe it was the newspaper.

The people who helped us were our neighbors, and people we didn't even know, and our friends and our family.

Carrie Gonzales, Lyons resident: It was just monumental, because for a month at least, maybe longer, there were volunteers champing at the bit trying to get to us and help us, and we were an island, they couldn't get in. The last two weeks of moving stuff, that's when the volunteers came, and then everything went lickety-split. We'd already gotten half of it done. But that was working pretty much 24/7.

Art Trevino, Longmont Resident: I didn't know any of these people in this neighborhood. But this actually brought us all together, and now I know who everybody is. People who were responsible for cleaning up the mess on the streets, they are unbelievable. And then neighbors, they are always asking each other “do you need anything, do you need any help, you got plenty of food, water?” stuff like that. So, it just kind of pulled the neighborhood together. And that’s what was so cool about it.

Chris: We saw so much of that… neighbors helping neighbors. 


That community resilience. That community support for each other is something that we realized was really critical to our community's resilience and something that we are focused on fostering after the flood. And it launched the city’s volunteerism program in an organized and kind of amped up way and helped to shape how we did community trainings and education after the flood. 

Anonymous: There was so many of those moments that we happened to be a part of. And I will forever be indebted, and it has forever changed how I think about people and how I think about…

You know, when people need something, you should help them out. And it doesn’t mean that you need to give them money, you can make them sandwiches, or you can spend a couple hours on a weekend one time, just fixing something in their house.

But it matters.

Cate: You can hear these stories, and other oral histories around the flood on the Carnegie Library’s website. There are over 30 interviews with folks from immediately after the flood telling their stories and stories of how much help they got and how much they helped others.

In the next episode where we’ll dive deeper into the city’s recovery, and the work that we’ve done and will continue do to prepare for future disasters. We’re gonna talk about what worked the way it was supposed to in 2013, lessons learned and how we’re working to prevent a flood catastrophe from happening again.

Leah: This episode of Let’s Talk Boulder was produced and edited by me, Leah Kelleher...

Cate: With the help of me, Cate Stanek, and our City of Boulder colleagues. A special thanks to all the folks featured in this episode – Jennelle Freeston, Joe Taddeucci, Chad Brotherton, Brandon Coleman, Chris Meschuk and Mike Chard.

Leah: And also, a big thank you to all the folks who shared their stories with the Carnegie Library. Check out our show notes for flood preparedness resources, a link to our 2013 Flood StoryMap, music attributes and much, much more.

Cate: You can also share your reflections with us. We want to hear from you. We want to hear your stories of your community. Go onto our StoryMap and share your reflection through art, poetry. What else, Leah?

Leah: We’re also collecting audio recordings. So, you can record a little snippet of yourself talking about how you experienced the flood, your reflections. If you want to record a poem, that’s great too. And maybe it will be featured in an upcoming website or somewhere else on our city channels.

Cate: And these will all be added to our gallery on the StoryMap, where you can go and see your community members and your friends and folks all around the county and the Front Range share their experiences and their reflections with you through their own words.

Follow us on our journey to prevent waste, give new life to old objects, and build an economic system that regenerates our planet instead of exploiting it.

Special guests in this episode:

  • Jamie Harkins, Sustainability Senior Manager for Circular Economies
  • Emily Freeman, Sustainability Policy Advisor
  • Michele Crane, Facilities Architectural Senior Manager

This episode was produced by Leah Kelleher. Theme music is Wide Eyes by Chad Crouch/Podington Bear. Please see our website for full music attributions.

Call-in opportunity! Tell us how the climate crisis makes you feel. Where do you find hope and courage? Call 303-818-4678 and leave a voicemail sharing your thoughts, and you might be featured in an upcoming episode!

Related Resources:

Music in this episode (edited):


Leah: Every year, for the past few years. Boulder middle and high school students have spent months collecting trash. Think trampoline fabric, candy wrappers, garden hoses, caution tape…all sorts of stuff. And they take all of these findings and piece them together to create gowns and pants and tops and other garments. What is this for? What’s the end goal? Well, it’s to walk across the runway and show off their creations to our community.

The event is called Trash the Runway. Here are some of the designers from last year...

Izzy: I’m Izzy, I’m a freshman at Boulder High. So, the pants, I was going for more of a parachute, baggy cargo pant look. I used the rainfly cover of a tent to make the pants, that’s the main material of the pants. And then I incorporated all the different other parts of the tent in the pants as well. So, I went on this giant road trip with my mom from California to Colorado and then through New Mexico and Arizona. This whole time we’d been using this one tent. Of course it had holes in it at the end and it was like, coming apart so we couldn’t use it anymore, but I thought of an idea that I could use it as an outfit so I could still like, have the memories, and like still look at it, but I could wear it as well. It’s pretty special, yeah.

Sophia: My name is Sophia, I am a senior at boulder High School. Not my base, but my kind of statement pieces are going to be little pieces of technology. So, I have circuit board, I have floppy discs, I have CDs, I have cords, keyboard, wires. Technology in so many ways is not designed to be a long-lasting product. They’re not designed to be fixed when they’re broken. They’re not designed to last long. They’re designed to last long enough that you buy whatever is new when it next comes out. And you dispose of whatever you just had. But you never think about whatever happens to it afterwards and how long it’s going to be sitting on planet Earth. Like all of these things are going to be here far beyond us, and it makes me kind of sad that we are leaving our mark in that way.

Leah: It’s kind of like the old saying, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. This idea of seeing used materials as valuable resources instead of trash is what we’re focusing on in this episode. We’re talking circularity, a new way of thinking about our economy as a circle where materials are used over and over again instead of being put in the trash, which ends up in our landfill.

Leah: I'm Leah Kelleher, and you're listening to Let's Talk Boulder.

Many of us are familiar with what we call the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle.

Leah: But we’ve focused so much on “recycling” the waste that we create that “reduce” and “reuse” part of that mantra haven’t really received the attention they deserve.

People in Boulder and across the globe are starting to recognize this and really reframe how we think about waste. So, instead of being so focused on the end of a product’s life, they’re trying to answer the question: how do we prevent waste in the first place? And how do we do that at the systems level...on an economic level? Cities like Boulder are investigating these questions too and are trying to build solutions that work for everyone.

Jamie: It's really evolved into how we address our consumption do we really go beyond just zero waste. Over the past decade or so, as we have seen consumption increasing, I mean any statistic you look up, whether it's plastics or food, like we're just we're consuming at such high levels year after year... And until we get a grasp on reducing that impact, like, we can't really say that we are doing the most we can to address the climate crisis that we all know is happening right before our eyes.

Leah: This is Jamie Harkins. She leads all things circularity and zero-waste for the city. OK, I’m already starting to use the word “circularity” like everyone knows what it means, so let me take a step back and let’s take a moment to define it.

[Jeff and Paige circularity song]

Leah: Thanks, Jeff and Paige! For those who don’t know Jeff and Paige are a musical duo who perform here in Boulder. They write and record and perform children’s songs about all sorts of science and nature topics. Go check them out and stay tuned for the full-length version of the song you just heard, called “No Biggie”.

So, circularity means shifting away from our current linear “take and make” economic system to one that prioritizes reusing and repairing things for as long as possible. Once things reach the end of their life and they can’t be repaired anymore, they’d be easily taken apart, recycled and turned into new-ish items made entirely from recycled materials.

Often when we talk about circularity, we’re talking about a systems-level change. So we’re talking about changing our actual economy to be a circular economy. And we’re talking about what that circular economy could look like. And you may not know this, but the City of Boulder has actually been developing a vision for the circular economy locally and starting to chart out how we’re gonna get there.

Jamie: Part of our job is to paint the picture of what a circular economy would actually look like. And I mean, I think we're all still figuring it out in a lot of ways, but basically, you can imagine a situation where anything you need to purchase, there are options other than buying something that is new made of virgin raw materials.

There is food grown locally, sold in reusable containers. There are, options to repair anything you have in your home. In a lot of ways, it's kind of like how our grandparents lived. You know, this idea that we don't hold on to things and repair them is kind of new.

But then when you do need something new, which we all are gonna know, there are things we’ll need that we can’t produce ourselves or repair. When you do need to buy something, you are confident in knowing that it has been designed in a way to make it easier for you to do the right thing when you're done with it. And that's the part of a circular economy that's different. That product is designed in a way that waste and pollution are viewed as a design flaw.

Leah: Ok, so you might be listening and thinking, whoa, this is a really lofty goal. And you’re right, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not eventually attainable or worth working toward.

Jamie: In a lot of ways, the whole idea of a circular economy is just like good business moving forward. We know we’re dealing with a set of circumstances that are going to be really unpredictable moving forward. Wouldn't it be great to not rely on extracting raw materials? What if we could create more stable supply chains by, by creating more circularity, and then…when you really start to many of the things that we just try to deal with on the back end, like could be used in such creative ways. And I think that’s how we need to start thinking of, you know, all of these materials being opportunities.

Leah: But that’s not to say there aren’t real barriers that are keeping us from going full on circular economy right now.

Jamie: When you're talking about completely restructuring, like, how our economy works, there's a lot of infrastructure needs. There are just real barriers to capturing materials to feedback into circular economy. And then there are just real cost barriers for producers who have invested in a certain way of making their products and buying raw materials to fundamentally shift. So, they're going to need different machines, they're going to need more design folks. But I don't think the benefits are properly calculated to that, because it will save so much money in the long term and we have to address the climate crisis.

When you come back to like our role as a city and like why we're both here, I do think we play a role in like getting people to think about that and asking these questions.

And then, another area that we really saw the city as having a role are some of these systems that consumers interact with a lot.

Leah: Think about getting a to-go cup at a coffee shop. Now, on a good day, I remember to bring my reusable mug. I don’t know about you, but I often feel like it shouldn’t be on me as the individual to remember that reusable mug. Especially when I’m walking down the street and I spontaneously want a cup of coffee with a friend. And I have to this weird choice of do I go in and get the disposable one and get that coffee but create trash, or do I just skip it all together? that cup of coffee and create trash.

Jamie: We have been working to support businesses who are trying to change that system. We've been supporting a reusable takeout container program for the last few years...DeliverZero. Making reusable takeout containers, something that is as easy as getting something you throw away.

Also, we’ve been working with r.Cup, a reusable cold beverage cup company that's been operating down in Denver at some of the music venues. If folks go to concerts down in Denver, they may have run across them. And so, we're working to bring them up to Boulder at some venues and events, and we'll be incentivizing businesses to swap out their disposable cups for r.Cup.

So, it’s systems like that. Like how can we as a city help accelerate their use and really try to make them like as easy to use as the disposable option? And it takes some time to like figure that out. But I think we'll get there.

And then, when you’re talking about this whole circular economy concept, we need a lot of new ideas and we need new ways of doing things and new companies to do them. And I think cities could really play a role in the testing of the idea. I think we've been really successful at like funding some of these ideas and really getting them to work out the kinks, like the reusable takeout container program. They really used our first year when we were supporting them of like improving the backend of the technology and making it an easier consumer experience. And really taking those lessons that were coming like every month. And then the idea is that they want to scale much bigger.

Leah: We certainly have a long way to go, but, as Jamie mentioned, we’re already making progress toward our circular vision. We’ve partnered with several reuse companies who are working with local restaurants to offer reusable to-go containers to their customers. We’re helping food businesses invest in their own, in-house reusable dining ware, dishwashers and other reusable systems so they don’t have to rely on single-use products.

Our friends at Eco-Cycle, Resource Central, Community Cycles and other local organizations are reselling donated materials for reuse or they’re transforming them into new, valuable products, like wallets make from bike tire inner tubes. And, other organizations are channeling food donations to those in need or creating local markets for thrifted goods. I could keep going, the list goes on and on. There’s tones of reuse happening in our community already. And we’ll be chatting with a few of our circularity partners in an upcoming episode, so, stay tuned for that.

Leah: We’re also working to make high-quality compost from our food scraps, leaves, grass clippings and other plant material. Healthy compost nourishes our soil. It feeds all those tiny little soil microbes that help grow our plants and provide sustenance for all of the nutritious local food that we grow in our own backyard, whether it’s literally our backyard in our garden or over a local farm.

Jamie: So, that's the other part of a circular economy…we're not just extracting and producing, we're also feeding the natural systems through that process. Sometimes I think that’s the hardest piece. You know, we can figure out how to like design products better and keep them circulating, but how do we correct the damage we've done to natural systems along the way?

Leah: This is where compost comes in. Healthy, clean compost is not just a way to recycle our food waste, but it’s also circular in that it takes your food scraps and your yard trimmings, and through the composting process, they’re transformed into this regenerative material that nourishes our soils – helping them absorb carbon and water, and hopefully, that compost is coming back to Boulder. Coming back to your yard and our local farms so that you can put it in your garden to help feed your plants.

Jamie: And as we continue to work on our compost stream... you know, we've had some issues with contamination, and we're working to clean it up. And as we work to produce this high-quality product, I think we need to work on making sure everyone in Boulder knows that like, that is gold.

Leah: Now, you might also be wondering, why can’t we just recycle everything? Well, there’s two big reasons. The first is that many materials can’t be infinitely recycled, because they breakdown every time they’re put through the recycling process. And the second, is that recycling doesn’t solve for all the emissions and natural resources required to make something new. We call these emissions “embodied emissions”, or “embodied carbon.” Think about all the wood that’s in your house.

Emily: The embodied emissions accounts for cutting down that initial tree, transporting that tree to a lumber mill, all of the energy and I’m using the word emissions, but the emissions that are coming from those machines – the electricity, the gas that it takes to produce that piece of wood that you want to buy... then you've got to transport it to your building, you've got to put it up, and now it's in your house.

Leah: This is Emily Freeman, she’s a policy advisory for the city and leads a lot of our reuse work.

Emily: And so, everything that is in your house has associated emissions from harvesting of that material to transportation to remanufacturing to...once probably again, transportation to the store that you're sourcing it from.

Leah: So, there’s a reason why our “reduce, reuse and recycle” moto is listed in that order. We can lessen our impact on the planet by simply using less from the start. Then, when something outgrows its usefulness, look for possible ways to reuse it or repair it if it’s broken in a minor way. And then finally, when it’s at the end of its life and it can no longer be reused, and it’s beyond repair it is time to recycle it.

Now, that’s not to say recycling isn’t piece of the circularity puzzle – it is. It’s just ONE piece, and the goal is for it to be the final step in the whole circularity process. For it to be the last resort.

Jamie: I know there's a lot of myths out there, or people hear rumors that what you're recycling isn't actually getting recycled.

I would love to just like, tell people it is. At least, here in Boulder County, we are so fortunate to have a recycling center run by folks who are very mission driven and really find good markets for our materials. But like we all can also acknowledge that recycling is imperfect.

It's not the answer. Like we cannot infinitely recycle everything to a point where we have addressed the problem. And so, I think that the idea of a circular economy acknowledges that recycling and composting, are absolutely like critical parts of this circle, this equation, but it can't be the only ones.

Leah: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on, didn’t we just say that composting is circular? OK, yes, that’s still true, but alongside making compost, we also need to be reducing how much food waste we create in the first place.

So, in a completely circular economy, we’d eat almost all the food we produce, except for maybe those carrot tops and banana peels that aren’t really as tasty or edible. We’d also try to eat local, in season food when possible, to limit how far that food needs to travel to get to our plate. Then, all of those not-as-edible food scraps, those carrot tops and banana peels, would be combined with leaves and other plant material and transformed into compost. From there, that compost would be returned to our soils – our garden, our farm fields... you name it!

Food waste to compost to soil is a good example of circularity, but there is another, and debatably more impactful, example that we can see unfolding right in our backyards. Drumroll, please...Sustainable Deconstruction.

Emily: Deconstruction is the un-building of a building in its most simple terms. So, a little more complicated explanation would be that deconstruction is the careful dismantling of a structure, typically in the opposite order that it was constructed in order to maximize the salvage of building materials for reuse and recycling.

Leah: It’s very different from demolition.

Emily: So, demolition is basically smashing a building down, tearing out its foundation and sending it to the landfill. I think our society has really, just kind of idolized and held up that demolition of buildings is exciting. We’re smashing, we’re watching implosions and you think about these….My kid, Jackson, he's three years old. And every time he sees a bulldozer or excavator, he's like, look, mom, look there. Did you see it? And he just wants to watch them work. And he likes them scooping and smashing and moving materials.

I want a clean slate? What is the fastest way for me to get there? Let's just bring in that bulldozer, bring in that excavator or a wrecking ball, and we're going to smash this down and get rid of it.

And we say that's the best way to do it without seeing that red brick building has value and people might want to reuse those bricks or we need road base, and we can recycle that concrete foundation and not have to extract more materials. That, all that hard wood can be taken out and resold.

Leah: So, in other words, deconstruction is a more circular way to take down and construct buildings. It does require more time –

Emily: For a residential house, demolition takes one to two days max and deconstruction can take upwards of 10 to 14 days.

Leah: And it takes more human power –

Emily: You need six to eight people who have been trained and are skilled labor to be able to deconstruct and dismantle that home.

Leah: But the impact is huge.

Emily: This is from the EPA. In 2018, the US generated 600 million tons of C&D debris.

Leah: C&D refers to construction and demolition...

Emily. that accounts for 40% of the total waste stream in the US. 90% of that 600 million comes from demolition and only 10% comes from construction. So, when we're looking at the impact of demolition, 90% of that 600 million pounds is coming from buildings coming down.

A lot of people emphasize we really need to focus on construction, and we do, we need to design for deconstruction. We need to understand how buildings are pieced together so you're maximizing energy savings and maximizing the potential for reuse or recycling at the end of life of that building. But another way to say that is one demolished home is equal to one person's lifetime generated trash.

So, from the time I was born to the time I die when I’m 100, because that’s my goal...all the trash that I have generated is kind of that equivalent weight when one building comes down.

According to the USGBC, the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings account for 40% of the global use of raw materials. If that building is demolished, those are nonrenewable resources that are sent to the landfill, and they are gone.

Leah: And then there’s emissions.

Emily: According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, building materials and construction account for just under 10% of the world's energy-related carbon emissions. So, building products...are among the biggest contributors to carbon emissions. This is partly because producing them can be highly carbon intensive. Virtually every step in a raw or virgin materials cycle requires energy input for extraction, refining, transportation and fabrication. Transportation, food, all the energy.

Leah: Whoa, I need a minute to think about that. So, what we buy has a bigger environmental impact than what we drive and how we power our lives.

Emily: So, just even that small l change towards deconstruction and preservation and salvage or even recycling can have a huge impact on climate. Reused and recycled materials require far less energy and resources and produce far fewer emissions. When one tonne of steel is recycled, 2,500 pounds of iron ore and 1400 pounds of coal and 120 pounds of limestone are conserved.

Emily: This is why we have to care about buildings. This is why we have to start kind of I think, taking that mental shift and saying, you know, we care about the environment, we care about climate change, we care about...saving the planet.

Emily: Carl Elefante, he’s the former president of the American Institute of Architects said that the greenest building is the one that’s already built. So even if we’re not keeping that building, if we can take its structures, we are helping to preserve that building in a new life, in a reimagined way.

Leah: It’s also preserving our history – the character of our community. Think about all the stories and history tied up in the wooden floors and glass windows in our homes. That wood was once a live tree. That glass was probably tiny grains of sand along a beach. And before that they were stones. So, the act of demolishing a building and landfilling its parts isn’t just wasting valuable resources and energy, it’s throwing away the history and, really, character of our community.

Emily: You're able to salvage the wood and salvage the sinks and the plumbing, all the things that you might think could, could maybe go somewhere. And you can take that structural wood that's holding your house up and either reuse it in your new building or there are multiple contractors and reuse organizations in the Boulder and Denver area that will accept those materials so they can be reused in a new life.

I believe we have a deep responsibility to create policies, programs and mechanisms to divert building materials from the landfill and to emphasize, reuse and recycling as stewards of our environment to help combat climate change.

Leah: And I’ve got some good news for ya: we’re doing just that. Here’s Jamie again…

Jamie: We've started down this path at the city, I think, we've really worked to identify like a few parts of the economy that we as a city can directly influence. So, the first, which anyone who owns property in city knows that a city has direct control over building codes and land use and you know how buildings get built. And so here in Boulder, you pay a deposit based on the size of the building you're bringing down. And then to get that deposit back, you have to recycle or repurpose for use 75% by weight.

Leah: The city has been working to model deconstruction over the past few years at a property called Alpine-Balsam. As the name suggests, it’s on the streets Alpine and Balsam here in Boulder. It was formerly the community hospital.

Michele: At the end of 2015, the city purchased the Alpine Balsam site, and it had the old Boulder Community Health Hospital on the site, which has been there up until just recently in different forms.

Leah: This is Michele Crane. She works at the city and is the architect for our city buildings. The City of Boulder is transforming the site for two uses:

Michele: One of those is for affordable housing and some market rate housing that helps support that development. And then the other is to really consolidate a number of city buildings into one centralized location to help better serve the community moving forward.

After the city purchased the site, some of the very early conversations were what to do next and what to do with this really large hospital, I think it’s over 300,000 square feet in total. And a lot of folks in the community, talked about reuse and the desire to reuse the building from an embodied energy standpoint to preserve the embodied energy at the site.

Leah: In this case, reusing the building means keeping the building intact, so, no taking it down, not demolishing it, not deconstructing it.

Michele: We know that new construction takes a lot of energy just to build new buildings much less operate and maintain them. And so we did a lot of assessment of the reuse of the building what that future development would look like, the complexity of reusing a hospital that is very purpose built to be a hospital, trying to transform that into something else and ultimately, the hospital itself would be very challenging to reuse.

However, there are three other buildings being reused on the site, the Brenton Building is being reused, the parking structure and the pavilion building which is attached to the hospital. They're all concrete structures. So, from an embodied carbon standpoint, they actually represent some of the largest amount of embodied carbon versus the hospital, which is a combination of concrete and steel.

But given the real commitment to our climate goals and interest in wanting to do the best we can do and really push the envelope in sustainability, especially on this site, we chose to sustainably deconstruct and try to maximize our reuse of any materials in that building over recycling, and then maximize recycling over landfill.

Deconstruction was broken into two phases. There was first interior deconstruction. We asked our contractors to reuse as much as possible first.

Emily: Doors, cabinets, sinks, ceiling tiles, a lot of the wood, we had lumber piles. There was a lot of lighting fixtures. Some of those were sold or donated.

Michele: I think there was also over a thousand doors.

Emily: And then the boilers and the pumps, those large mechanical equipment...that’s the type of material that we sent out to auction.

Michele: In a hospital, there's a lot of equipment in pumps and systems and things that really can be kind of auctioned off and reused directly as other things. And sometimes that reuse looks like repurposing into furniture or other things, but it's not a full kind of recycling where you really break the whole material down.

We learned a lot about what goes into the dumpster, and I think that was eye opening, especially as we think about our other city buildings. Most of what goes into the dumpster, I think 99% of what went into the dumpster, was drywall. It can't be recycled, and it can't be easily reused.

And so it made us think a lot about just how we would like to limit the use of drywall in buildings. And drywall is cheap to use compared to flexible or adaptable systems. You can get into systems in buildings that do, walls that are more of a kit parts, but they have a higher upfront cost. But it’s something that we learned early that we should really assess that upfront cost given how much we may renovate something over time and that it may be worth that upfront cost. It may limit costs in the future when we know we will remodel again, probably in the next handful of years. And we won’t be contributing to the landfill.

Emily: So, once we had the interior done, there was a lot of exposed metal. Most commercial buildings are a lot of steel I-beams supports and brick or concrete, those are all materials that have reuse options and retained value.

From there, we were able to remove those, those steel elements so they could be reused in projects such as Fire Station Three in Boulder. Recycling of steel still requires that that energy intensity that even though you've reclaimed that material, you still have to melt it down to be made into another product.

Leah: This is a great example of circularity. Old, deconstructed steel from the hospital is being reused, locally, in our new fires station, which is saving us resources, money, and it’s also saving the history of those beams. This brings up a really important part of a successful circular economy - having stable markets for reused materials. As you might know, new building materials can be really expensive. And as we’ve talked about, there’s still a lot of life and value left in used materials. However, ensuring that they actually get reused requires connecting the people that are looking to buy them to the folks who are selling them. This is a place where we need some innovation and growth.

Emily: If we don’t have a way, especially in this digital age, to know that materials are available when you need them and what you want, that still is driving people to buying new materials.

Leah: This could look like an online marketplace, and or better connections between contractors working on local projects. The city is currently exploring these different ways to support a stronger, more connected marketplace for building materials, and more, but it’s a work in progress.

Leah: As of this summer, deconstruction of the hospital is complete.

Michele: The actual deconstruction didn’t take more time. It came down very quickly even though we were trying to reuse. The final phase of our analysis will be, really, compiling a report that summarizes what we learned and what the final costs were. But right now, we definitely have some initial cost savings, just from the unknowns, it went so much smoother than we had planned.

Leah: We also know that through deconstruction, we were able to divert about 94% of the building materials by weight from the landfill. Again, 94%. That’s incredible.

Michele: Being able to share what we have learned, and at a detailed level of where the hiccups can be and where things went smooth in the process, really, we do hope helps inform other projects.

Leah: More information and the full report will be coming out soon, so stay tuned for details.

Leah: Do you ever find yourself stuck, maybe close to paralyzed in the grocery store? You’re looking at two versions of the same type of product: one’s local and organic but it’s wrapped in plastic, while the other is plastic-free but from a big name brand imported from across the globe. Which one do you buy? I often have these grocery store dilemmas.

Jamie: In a perfect circular economy, like, you shouldn't have to make the choice, that should already be figured out for you. And that's where I think, as a climate movement, we've struggled…in that... putting so many of these decisions on consumers rather than changing the system that produced them.

Jamie: Our individual carbon footprint. Well, what about the carbon footprint of the companies making all these products? And why is it so hard for us as consumers to do the right thing? Like that is, I think at the core of what we are thinking about a lot.

How do we change that? Because, that's how we like actually address some of these issues, especially around consumption.

Leah: How do we change that? One of the biggest ways is influencing policy. And the good news is, we’ve actually seen a number of promising policies pass recently.

Jamie: There are a few state policies that have passed in recent years. The first was the plastic Pollution Reduction Act, which was signed in 2021. And that bill was a result of many years of cities lobbying for certain changes regarding plastics. And so, it has four main parts. The first people are very familiar, hopefully, by now that it started a statewide bag fee at large stores that started January 1st, 2023, that transitions into a phasing out of plastic bags at large stores and a ban on Styrofoam food containers starting January 1st, 2024.

And then it repealed a preemption. So, a preemption is something that the state says that a city cannot do. There was actually a preemption on the books that said cities couldn't regulate plastics used in consumer packaging. So, we couldn't ban certain plastics.

Leah: The City of Boulder and others lobbied the state to get rid of that preemption. With that preemption now lifted, cities can make their own regulations that create additional restrictions on some of the most problematic plastics, staring next year, in 2024. The city also advocated for a state bill that passed in 2022 called the Colorado Producer Responsibility Act.

Jamie: It’s just extremely exciting and is really where this whole conversation needs to go. We often refer to these kinds of policies as extended producer responsibility, you may here like EPR.

What it does is start to shift the burden of what is left after you use a product back to the producers. So, based on how a product is packaged, they'll have to pay into this fund. There's an advisory group working on how this will all work right now, but the more recyclable your packaging is, the less of a fee you'll pay. And so, that’s how you’re sort of encouraging better choices. But that fund will go to the state. And then the idea is it pays for recycling service for all of Colorado, access for everyone free of charge.

This is the systems change we talk about. It can't just be on you and me and our neighbors to do the right thing. Like, we are given a product. It shouldn’t be that hard to figure out what to do with it.

Jamie: We fundamentally at a city level can’t on our own reshape the global economy. I wish we could. But I think this is a really great example of work that...can influence these larger systems. And it's now a model for, I think 15 states, are looking at modeling our Colorado Producer Responsibility Bill.

Leah: OK. We’ve covered a lot in this episode. We started with circularity and circular economies at a really high level. Then, we talked about the city’s work in this space, narrowed in on sustainable deconstruction and some of the policies that are heading us in the right direction.

But you might be wondering, and are hopefully wondering, what are some things I can do as an individual right now to help support our local circular economy. Well, here’s some ways to get started.

Borrow, share and rent items whenever you can. And this can actually be really helpful if you’re trying to use something for a limited time. So, for instance, you might not want to go buy an immersion blender, but maybe your friend has one and you could go borrow it from them. Or you could borrow a book or a movie from the library. You could swap clothes with a friend. Get creative.

Another way is to repair items with life left in them. Check out Boulder U-Fix-It Clinic events for repair trainings. We put a link in our show notes.

Also, shop for used things like clothes, shoes, furniture, and you name it, thrift stores got ‘em all. You could also go to garage sales, flea markets, consignment shops. There’s a ton of thrift-like stores around town. Go check ‘em out and see what you can find.

Another way, and I try to do this when I remember to, is to bring reusable containers to grocery stores for produce and any sort of bulk purchases that you might want to make. And to restaurants for leftovers.

We’ve put a few articles with more tips and tricks in our show notes. Go check ‘em out.

This episode of Let’s Talk Boulder was produced and edited by me, Leah Kelleher. Let’s Talk Boulder is a City of Boulder podcast that explores our community one conversation, like this one, at a time.

Special thanks to folks featured in this episode, Jamie Harkins, Emily Freeman and Michele Crane and of course, the Trash the Runway students whose voices you heard at the beginning of this episode.

As always, check out our show notes for a whole bunch of circular economy resources, music attributes and more.

Dig into emotions many of us experience as we live through climate change, along with coping strategies to build hope and personal resilience.

Special guests in this episode:

  • Eva Jahn (she/her), Licensed Psychotherapist
  • Lodi Siefer (they/them), Psychotherapist and Hive Co-Director
  • Louise Chawla (she/her), Professor Emerita at University of Colorado Boulder
  • Heather Bearnes-Loza (she/her), Sustainability Senior Program Manager
  • Sandy Briggs (she/her), Sustainability Program Manager
  • Jonathan Koehn (he/him), Director of Climate Initiatives
  • Emily Freeman (she/her), Sustainability Policy Advisor
  • Daniel Hanson (he/him), Cool Boulder Intern
  • Emily Sandoval (she/her), Community Engagement Senior Program Manager
  • Marya Washburn (she/her), Public Information Officer for the Fire Department
  • Jamie Carpenter (he/him), Wildland Operations Specialist
  • Kerry Webster (she/her), Wildland Fire Senior Program Manager
  • New Vista High School students Lahja, Lucy, Chauncey and Beck.

This episode was produced by Leah Kelleher. Theme music is Wide Eyes by Chad Crouch.

Resources mentioned in the episode:

Music in this episode (edited):


Lucy: My name is Lucy, I’m a freshman at New Vista High School.

Lahja: I’m Lahja, I’m a junior at New Vista High School.

Beck: I'm Beck, I’m a senior at New Vista.

Chauncey: I am Chauncey, I am a senior in high school.

Leah: How does the climate crisis make you feel?

Chauncey: Hopeful, inspired, stressed...

Beck: Not too positive, in honesty. I think that our generation, my generation, is one that’s going to have to be taking a lot of the brunt. I mean, of course everyone will be, but my generation especially will be having to deal with a lot.

Lucy: I’m hopeful some days, and I’m less hopeful other days. It really just depends. It's very up and down.

Beck: I do have hope. I think that one day maybe things might turn out for the better...even if it all goes really south, it will one day get better.

Lahja: I wish I had more hope – I’m gonna say it. It feels pretty dreadful at the just keeps getting worse. It’s like a snowball and if nobody stops, it will just keeps piling up. And so, that gets to be really scary.

Lucy: It's just harder to do the things that the world demands of us. And then I also think about how I'm 15 years old and like I don't need to be thinking about how I'm going to be changing the world.

Chauncey: We are all trying to learn and grow. I know that eventually, in the long run, people will realize what we are doing wrong and start to connect.

Leah: I'm Leah Kelleher, and this is Let's Talk Boulder, a City of Boulder podcast exploring our community, one conversation at a time. This episode is going to be a bit different from other topics we’ll cover on this podcast. We’re going to explore how it feels to live through the climate crisis, and we’re going to hear from people who live and work and go to school in our community.

This isn’t a topic that we’ve explored a lot as a local government. But, as a local government, it’s so important that we take a step back and listen. So, we wanted to use this episode to hold a mirror up to our individual and really collective fears, hopes, feelings and resolve.

The four young people you heard a few moments ago – Lahja, Lucy, Chauncey and Beck – are students at New Vista High School here in Boulder. They have been thinking a lot about climate change and recently put together a climate justice-themed photography exhibit with their classmates. The city supported the project, and you can actually go visit it in person on University of Colorado Boulder campus or you can check it out online – I'll put link to more info in the show notes.

I also asked a few of my colleagues in our city Climate Initiatives Department about the feelings that come up for them. Here’s Daniel Hanson, Emily Sandoval, Jonathan Koehn and Sandy Briggs.

Daniel: I think an obvious one is just anxiety. You're kind of bombarded with bad news, whether it's about wildfires in Canada or droughts and earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. There's just a lot of concerning news out there and for me personally, it's kind of been a constant throughout my life.

Emily S: I have this vivid...memory that I really trust, which is in the summer afternoons...there would be this period where like you'd come in from playing outside because it was 3:30 and it was time for the thunderstorm, and it would roll in over the flatirons and it would rain hard.

But it was this beautiful thunderstorm because you could still see the sun on the west side of the dark clouds, and it would pass over in half an hour, 45 minutes. You'd come in. The lightning would end, you'd get to go back in the pool, right, and you'd get to have the rest of your summer afternoon. And it was just this clockwork, this pattern.

The weather patterns have changed so significantly, that's not a thing anymore. Kids going to Scott Carpenter pool today don't know, like clockwork at 3:30 p.m., they're going to have to get out of the pool and it'll be a good time for an ice cream break. It’ll be something different. I don't know why that makes me so sad because weather is what it is, but just knowing that what I experienced is not an experience that I get to share with my own kid…

Sandy: Probably the biggest one that I struggle with is feeling guilty, so that’s a hard thing for me to reconcile, especially when I do this work. It just feels like kind of a moral imperative. I can do this work. And everybody can do this work. It’s the little things that matter and the more people that we can bring along to do this work, the better off we’ll be.

Jonathan: It’s very easy to feel totally overwhelmed. Maybe a bit helpless or powerless, angry, disconnected. These are all of the emotions that I feel on a pretty regular basis. And those are messy and complicated feelings. They make total sense.

I wish that someone had said this to me 30 years ago. So I was a freshman taking environmental studies courses, which is, you know, basically a semester of really bad news about all the ways that humans have profoundly damaged the earth. And, you know, I think I felt like I was dropped into this dark tunnel and not given any tools to get out except to carry on with my everyday life. And once you’re exposed…to that kind of information, things really aren’t normal anymore.

Leah: Are you feeling any of the emotions that’ve been named so far? Anxious, sad, inspired, hopeful? No matter what you’re feeling or where you live, dealing with the climate crisis is hard. Especially as it’s becoming more and more visible in our daily lives. Species are disappearing before they’re named; rivers and creeks are drying up; wildfires have become a year-long threat. You can learn more about that in our first couple episodes. And all of this, all of these things we’re seeing and feeling are piling on top of other crisis we’re struggling with other crises, like family emergencies or substance abuse across our country.

It’s a lot to live through, but you’re not alone. As you might guess, there are many people in Boulder feeling concerned about the climate crisis. Actually, more than 80% of the 1,180 community members we polled in 2022 reported feeling at least “somewhat worried” about climate change. Over half of those folks (58%) said they were extremely worried. And these worries aren’t just in Boulder; 70% of Americans across the U.S. report feeling at least “somewhat worried,” with more than a third feeling “very worried” about climate change. That’s a lot of people.

So, we wanted to take some time to unpack all of the emotions you might be feeling and to talk about some strategies that can help us all cope with the climate crisis. We have some folks here to help us.

Eva: My name is Eva Jahn. I'm a licensed psychotherapist here in Boulder, Colorado, and I focus on climate distress. So, people who feel the immenseness of the collapse of this planet... if it's anxiety or grief or all sorts of other feelings…they come to me, and we talk about it and unpack it

Eva: It's a grief that's really hard to describe. So many people feel it, but they don't really know how to talk about it. I think it's really important to name that climate distress is very normal and it's a very rational response to an actual threat.

Leah: Absolutely, so many of us are feeling it in some shape or form. And it might look and feel different for different people, right? It could feel like frustration, or fear and anger, or numbness. Or we might feel all these emotions and more all at once. All of these feeling are reminding me of a phrase that I’ve heard you say before, “name it to tame it.” What does that mean for folks who aren’t familiar with that saying?

Eva: Yeah, “name it to tame it” is a term that comes from Daniel Siegel, describing the importance of acknowledging our feelings and saying them out loud as one way to get to tame them a little bit. Because if we feel alone with them, and if we feel like there's no space for us to share what's happening for us internally, it can get really scary to sit with all these big feeling. And as you’re descripting, right, it’s not just one. We can have hope and despair at the same time. We can feel sad and rageful at the same time, right? We can experience some sort of optimism, but at the same time, we may, the next day cry the whole day about the crisis and then we feel motivated to walk about and do something about it.

Oftentimes when we experience one sort of loss, it just activates our legacy of grief, and it reminds us of all the other losses that we have experienced.

And I think there's this cultural myth that in order to survive, or in order to deal with these crises, we have to be in a state of grounded calmness and just needing to like, deal with our feelings and put them aside. But I think the healthy feelings are the ones that flow. We actually need to move in and out of these different states and these different feelings in order to grow our capacity to be with more.

Like, if we are practicing, to go into the woods and to let ourselves fall apart there, and to feel it all. And then we put ourselves back together, and we come back out of the woods, and we’re gonna do what needs to be done in the world and then we go back into the woods and we let ourselves fall apart and we put ourselves back together and we come back out.

It’s the in and out and going back and forth in these states and allowing all of them to be there, really, rather than trying to be grounded and calm all the time. Because the reality is none of us is.

Leah: And this ability to name what we’re feeling and to move through it feels incredibly important as climate disasters, like wildfires and floods, become more frequent. I’m thinking back to some conversations I had with our local wildland firefighters who face hotter, more devastating fires as the climate changes. They described what they’re experiencing as beyond burn out. Here’s Marya Washburn. Marya leads communications for the Fire Department

Marya: We had a red flag day...and I walked into the Boulder Fire Station Eight, which is the wildland division station, at about it was late morning, right as the red flag warning started. It was really windy. We could see ducks trying to fly and land, and I just made eye contact with the firefighters that were there. And they were like, “hey, we're stress eating. How's it going with you?”. Because they knew. That was a day to be stressed. So they were ready, they were all dressed and ready to go fight a wildfire if a wildfire started.

Eva: And so, if we think about the frequency of those things happening over and over, our nervous system and our brain eventually is gonna shut down. Most of the time, we want to go into denial. We want to go into doomism, like we’re screwed anyways. We may try to work really hard to fix the problem.

But…it’s all this idea of how do we deal with all this uncertainty that's coming our way? If our brain is actually not set up to deal with uncertainty...uncertainty is kind of a fuel for worry, it's a fuel for fear.

You know, Daniel Siegel likes to say when we flip our lid, which means when our amygdala, our alarm system, is on and we go into fight or flight or eventually freeze, the first thing that goes offline is our social engagement network. So, we're actually not able to be in relation with other people in that moment. How can I take care of my own nervous system so that I can then show up as an attuned and compassionate other to people who are struggling?

And oftentimes it starts with, you know, name it to tame it, right, so acknowledge, oh, this is happening right now for us. Then, if you have someone you can talk to about it, if you're like with a friend and you just like share what's happening for you, right, that in itself oftentimes can already regulate us a little bit.

But then there are all sorts of other practices we can do to bring us back into more of a parasympathetic nervous system, which is the one where we feel more calm, we feel more grounded, and we can actually be in relation with another person again.

Leah: As you said earlier, naming how we’re feeling to ourselves is a step toward coping with climate distress, but sharing those feelings with other people seems harder.

Eva: Well, I think you bring up an interesting point. As a community, what's really important to move towards is also being OK to being witnessed in group and witnessed in our community in our grief and in our falling apart. Because there's so much power in being witnessed, so much power in seeing other people have a really similar experience, right? So, it really prevents this feeling of aloneness.

Leah: Definitely. And maybe it would help prevent feeling numb too...? Instead of shutting down and avoiding how climate change makes me feel, we’d lean on each other, and we’d have the strength to face our feelings and work through them, because we’d have other people going through the same thing by our side.

Eva: Yeah, I think numbness can be all sorts of things. We go into space of numbness and dissociation when we feel like we can’t tolerate whatever is happening in the moment. Yeah, everything feels too hard... powerless -- yes. And in order to move out of that, we kind of need to activate our system again.

Dissociation, disavowal is one way for us to cope with the immenseness of it. I see this with people who already experience a lot of anxiety in their lives. And they would say to me, I cannot even let myself lean into being afraid of that, because then I'm gonna fall apart and I'm never going to get out of my hole, that it feels so scary to even just think about what it may feel like to not know what the planet is gonna look like in ten years. That no…we just shut down right away, right… some people may sit in this fear for longer, but other people just feel the fear come up and the first thing that their system does is like “no way, I’m out”.

Leah: Yeah, it’s too much sometimes... or maybe all the time, when we’re dealing with everything else going on in our lives.

Eva: You’re right.

If you already have a lot of other pieces that feel more related to the here and now into the present moment of like, how am I going to get food on the table? And I'm working 12 hours a day, and I have young children at home, and I'm also part of the BIPOC community and I'm living in a pretty white town and I’m experiencing racist comments every day...

Like those are all things that like are very taxing on your nervous system and activate our survival response over and over and over. Right? And if that gets activated over and over, we're gonna get tired.

I just want to remind listeners again that we are building emotional resiliency by letting ourselves feel our feelings – for letting ourselves fall apart. And then we put ourselves back together. We fall apart, we put ourselves back together – that we're not building emotional resiliency by shutting away.

Leah: OK, now I want to come back to some of the practices we can use to help calm ourselves when the wind starts to pick up, or the latest climate report comes out and we’re completely overwhelmed by what it says. What can we do to calm our minds and bodies in those moments of stress?

Eva: Sometimes when we feel really anxious, it's really hard for us to start with breathing. So, maybe what we need to do first is coming back into our body. Anxiety is kind of like when we are a little floaty and we are not really on the ground, so like what are ways we can find ourselves on the ground again. And maybe just lying on the ground and noticing all the contact points of our body with the earth, whether actually laying on the earth or dancing or stretching.

Leah: Yeah. I really loved that vagal nurturing exercise that you showed me. Could we do it together with listeners?

Eva: Yeah, let’s do it, let’s do it! Are you ready?

Leah: Yes

Eva: OK, this script is from the Risio Institute. OK, so everyone, our listeners too if you want to, you can try it with me.

Just find yourself somewhere on a seat with your feet on the ground or you can sit on the ground cross-legged if that feels good to you.

And we’re gonna start by pulling our ears. So bring your hands to your ears and just pull them down, earlobes. Then take a breath and release. That is step one.

And step two is you’re gonna put your hands around your eyes and you’re gonna feel how cool they are. And take a nice deep breath in, all the way down into your belly. And then relax and release on the exhale. Making your exhale slightly longer than your inhale.

And then on your next in breath you are going to slide your hands down on your chin. You might even want to imagine someone who cares about you holding your face in their hands. And breathing in and breathing out, a long exhale.

And then on your next inhale, slide those hands down to the heart. And feel what happens with that gentle pressure on your heart. And again breath.

And then take your hands down to your hips and place them on your belly and breathe in, longer breath out.

And then take that top hand and put it back on your heart and take another intentional breath.

And then the last part is opening to receive so you let your arms go down…put your palms on your legs and take a breath.

And you may even notice if there is a phrase that comes, like “I’m OK” or “I can do this”. And then I encourage you to do this as many times in the day as you want. To fill yourself up and to calm your nervous system. And you can do this in the office or you know, wherever you are.

Leah: The word hope comes up a lot when we talk about the climate crisis. I think we’ve actually used it a couple times already in this episode. But the definition of hope can vary from person to person. What does hope look like to you?

Heather: Having hope means you're looking at your situation...and being hopeful that within the context of that reality, you can make the best of it.

Eva: ...trusting that you can get up every morning to do the work and to do what needs to be done. That there's a hopefulness in knowing that there's a collective who is working on this. Rather than saying I’m feeling hopeful that we’re gonna fix it. Because that’s a hope that is not based in something we actually know for sure.

Heather: People are good at pulling together and doing things. It's when we forget we're good at that, that’s when we get into trouble. And it's hard to be hopeful when you lose that belief that we can act as communities and act as a collective.

And the basis of that is starting with you taking care of yourself and moving outward to small actions that lead into taking care of your community and, you know, include the natural world in your community.

Emily S: Hope is doing, hope is a verb. For me, I have to do to feel hopeful. I wouldn't say hope is a word that I use to describe how I feel about the future because I'm almost too busy to think about it. I just need to put my head down and build the future that is just, clean, where people can be healthy, where people are fed, where they're getting their housing needs met. Like, that's what I'm motivated to do. And whether or not I feel hopeful about it, to me, sometimes feels beside the point.

Jonathan: All I have to do is look at my daughters. And I know it’s an overused cliché but it’s an honest one. When I see their eyes light up…when they experience the awe and joy that our natural environment gives them, how can I not show up and do everything humanely possible to protect that for them.

Leah: That was Eva, Heather Bearnes-Loza, who is also on our climate team, Jonathan Koehn and Emily Sandoval. Here’s Emily Freeman.

Emily F: It's almost a vision of what the world will look like. I can imagine that life is going to go on, and that we're going to find ways to regenerate our soils, regenerate our natural environment...and that we're going to respect each other. That’s that idea of hope, that creates in my head... a vision that we will be able to sustain life.

Leah: These themes of coming together to act and that being motivation to keep going, to keep working to build a better future, those themes came up a lot in my conversations with Jamie Carpenter and Kerry Webster.

Kerry is the new Wildfire Program Manager for Open Space and Mountain Parks. So, she works to coordinate wildfire projects across our open spaces and mountain parks. Jamie is on Boulder Fire Rescue and he's part of the wildland fire division. He and Kerry have also served as local wildland firefighters. They told me that serving our community and working alongside their fellow firefighters, their firefighting family, is what keeps them going.

Jamie: It's the opportunity to serve the public, and the firefighting is such a unique blend of physical, mental, emotional challenge that's what keeps me going even in a place from whatever beyond burned out looks like. It's still a privilege to get to do this job.

Kerry: It's a privilege to serve our community, like Jamie said. It’s a privilege to work with the people we get to work with. It's a family, you know, and I think that's one thing that keeps us here is's such special people that do this job. And that always, you know that they have your back, whether it's on a fire, off a fire…

Leah: Yeah. I feel this sense of comfort and pride when I slow down and look at all the amazing climate work happening in our community. Here's Heather, Emily F., Daniel, Sandy and Jonathan again. And I know there’s a lot of names in this episode, so just as a reminder, all of these folks are on our city climate team.

Heather: People out in the community doing this work are a constant source of inspiration. They're really the people who make me so excited to do this work and to move forward versus feeling stuck.

Jonathan: While I am really scared, and I don’t know what all the answers are, I do know, without a doubt, 100%, that each one of us has the capacity to meet these challenges with ingenuity, with brilliance and bravery. We are so capable of solving problems. We’re capable of being creative, of being adaptive, of being flexible, of really being our brilliant selves.

Emily F: I've had so many conversations with people who have great ideas, who are passionate about it, and my neighbors are composting and putting up signs to say no pesticides to be sprayed here and sharing the fruits of, like literally, their garden.

Daniel: There is a lot of people doing work out there, even if you don't see it firsthand.

Sandy: Everybody can be part of this work in some small way. It doesn’t matter what you do. Little things matter and little things add up. I see it kind of like a network where all these little points of action are happening where everybody is trying to do things and they’re only going to spread.

Jonathan: Small actions do roll up into collective action. Collective action rolls up into systems-level change. We see that time and time again. And it is that algorithm, that equation really is pretty beautiful when you look at how small changes really do inspire action. And you see someone taking an action and you say “I can do that, I can do that as well”. And my gosh, their life is better for it, so it isn’t about suffering. It’s about finding joy. It’s about finding the beauty in the small things that we can do as individuals.

Eva: Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, she has this wonderful TED talk about how to bring joy into your climate action. One thing she suggests, and she says like, you know we can do all these things. We can vote, we can recycle, we can talk to our friends all these things that are very important. But she says, what if we, rather than getting stuck in this like, heavy blanket of guilt, to think about, okay, what are our strengths? What are the issues that we feel really passionate about? What are the injustices that align with us that we want to fight for?

And then what brings us joy? We are in this for the long haul, so let's, let's do something that actually brings us joy so we can find our own curated version of climate action that then feels more sustainable.

If we don't let ourselves feel grief, our capacity for joy is also not that big.

Leah: And so many things can bring us joy. Perhaps it’s a bike ride around your neighborhood, or maybe its planting native wildflower seeds around your home or listening to climate-inspired poetry at one of our local cafes. Or maybe it’s lying belly down on the Earth and connecting with the world around us...

Lodi: My name's Lodi Siefer, I use they/them pronouns. I'm a psychotherapist by occupation, trying to turn community organizer. So, that's where my passion really is – around climate justice issues.

Laying belly down on the earth and starting to even act as if the trees are people too, can we just try it on? If we could do that, we might let the world save us because it's actually the humans who have totally lost our way, thinking that we can live lifestyles that take five Earths to support just...the math is not there. And what we've sacrificed is all this relationship.

We get so much back when we shift our relationship back into integration. And a sense of belonging, what is that worth? You can't buy a sense of belonging. What a gift. And the fact is, like we already belong – we've just forgotten. Like, it’s right there.

Leah: I got to say, I tried lying belly down on the Earth this past week, and it was a really calming experience. It slowed me down. It made me notice the beetles, ants and other tiny creatures living in my yard.

One thing I want to make sure to emphasize is that the mix of emotions and the intensity we feel them can differ depending on our identity and place in the world. This seems especially true across generations.

When scientists talk about climate change, they often throw around dates like 2050 and 2070 as points of no return – as times of climate catastrophe. But young people today are going to live to see those times. They might live to see more devastating wildfires, disappearing coastlines and extreme heatwaves if we don’t dramatically change how we live on this planet. And many of them have been learning about climate change and dealing with climate distress their entire life.

We actually have folks based right here in Boulder who have been studying how climate change affects young people, like Louise Chawla.

Louise: I'm Louise Chawla, and I'm a Professor Emeritus in the program of Environmental Design at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Leah: Louise studies environmental psychology, so, she explores relationships between human beings, in this case children, and the rest of the natural world. She and I chatted about a few studies that investigated how young people feel about the climate crisis. And one of them particularly hit home for me. It was a local study that asked children from Cherry Hill and Commerce City a bunch of questions, including “do you have any environmental concerns?”.

Louise: Over 80% of them came out with these stark fears. Even though it may not end in my time…I'm really sad to think that my children or my grandchildren are going to have to see the end of the world. I mean, statements like that.

Just think of children in Boulder here, in 2013 they were part of – witnessed a great flood, which scientists associate with global warming. And then wildfires... repeatedly the wildfires in our county. And so more and more, it's not just in the news, but it's also in children's own lives directly.

Young people need to know what I can do, they need to know what others are doing, and they need to know what we can do together.

There's a risk with just the what can I do? We have a whole entire culture which tends to drop environmental responsibility onto individuals rather than taking political and corporate responsibility for it.

The problem is just too big. You can't solve it by yourself.

So, it's really important to connect young people with adults who are taking responsibility to do something about environmental problems so they can see they're not alone in a) I'm feeling this is a really big problem and b), I'm really worried about it. They're not alone in those emotions and that other people in positions of responsibility are out there sharing your emotions and doing what they can do.

Creating a space to share environmental fears and worries is really supportive because young people talk about getting all these messages that you're not supposed to express these fears and worries.

So just creating safe spaces that open up the conversation in nonjudgmental ways and let different views be heard and just acknowledge that there are a lot of emotions around this, and different kinds of emotions. Young people who say they have that, whether it's coming from teachers, their family members, their friends…they’re significantly less likely to express denial or apathy.

Leah: It feels like we all need these things, no matter our age. We all need safe spaces to share how we’re feeling, we all need to see others taking action, and we all need to feel like we’re in this together, because we are.

We’re kind of coming full circle — back to the idea of naming our emotions to tame them and the power of connecting with others. I’m going to hand it over to Eva and Lodi.

What are some things folks can do to cope and help others cope?

Eva: Yeah.There are all sorts of of them is social connection, which we talked a lot about, like finding yourself in groups, like with like-minded people.

Leah: Yeah, Lodi actually helps lead a local group called the Boulder County Climate Justice Hive (or the Hive for short) that’s building some of these people-to-people and people-to-planet connections that we’ve been talking about.

Lodi: Its mission, its function is to find out who's doing what and where around climate justice in Boulder County and encourage collaboration and facilitate coordination.

Lodi: There’s so many amazing, wonderful things happening. They don’t know about other wonderful things happen that are like completely mission aligned. Just like this Naropa group didn’t know about Boulder.Earth so like already, ooh, and what's possible once we do find out about each other, just the synergistic pieces are amazing, as well as the strategic and thoughtful, longer-term vision possibilities.

Lodi: It's going to take folks across all sectors. Government, nonprofit... and the business world. And so, the Hive is really doing a kind of ecosystem mapping of who is doing what and where and what parts of the community are they attending to. So our goal is a caring and connected community for all the humans, all the other-than-humans and the future generations. And so really both wanting to re-inspire and reanimate and re-enchant humans’ relationship with the rest of the natural world that we are a part of and not a not apart from.

Leah: The Hive is a collaboration between Naropa University’s Joanna Macy Center for Resilience and Regeneration and Boulder.Earth, which is partially funded by the city. As Lodi just mentioned, the Hive is a nonprofit that brings local climate justice groups together in conversation and collaboration. We have thousands of people across our region trying to build a better future, and the Hive is trying connect the dots and bring all of them together.

This also seems like a perfect time to talk a little bit about Cool Boulder. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Cool Boulder is a community campaign that forms partnerships between the city, local environmental organizations and people. Really, the goal is to mobilize people to protect biodiversity, to cool neighborhoods and to adapt to climate change using what we call nature-based climate solutions. These solutions include pollinator gardens, soil regeneration and many other strategies that tap into what nature already does to stabilize our planet. Like the Hive, Cool Boulder connects people to local action, like mapping heat or planting trees. Here’s Heather again.

Heather: One of my favorite parts about Cool Boulder is that it's new and it represents an opportunity to co-create. It’s such a huge range of things that can be done and should be done and need to be done, but there are people all through this area and all over the world already doing really, really amazing work. Ultimately, the goal is that this isn’t so city based. We really want this out in the community.

The community has a ton of its own inertia. This area’s amazing. I have been blown away by what people want to and are capable of doing.

Leah: There’s a lot more we could say about Cool Boulder and all the wonderful work our community is doing, and we’ll actually be exploring all of that in a future episode. So, for now, I’ll have you check out Cool Boulder’s website. As always, there’s a link in the show notes. OK, back to strategies. Another one is acknowledging our feelings.

Eva: Some people like to journal about them, right? Some people like to talk to a friend, some people like to talk to their therapist. Sometimes people like to talk to the trees or to the rocks or to animals, right? Whatever, whatever space allows you to explore that and to say those things out loud. Coming back to appreciation and turning toward beauty. Our brain is going to focus on the negative thing, right? So, our brain is going to focus on the species loss rather than looking at the birds that are still around, for example, right? So that can be really helpful as a coping mechanism.

Another thing that I also love is Leslie Davenport, who is a climate psychologist, she talks about the idea of assigning a worry hour. What if we assign ourselves an hour a day to worry about it.

Like today at 4 p.m. I'm going to go home, and I'm going to let myself fall apart and worry about all these things that I need to worry about. And then I want to stop myself after an hour, or 30 minutes or whatever you choose, right? I'm going to do some breathing; I’m going to go outside. I'm going to, you know, make a tea. Whatever helps you kind of come back, like get a hug from a friend or a partner. And then you can do that every day. So, you acknowledge those feelings, but they may not be just accompanying you 24/7. If you feel climate distress, there are more and more people in this community now who are doing work and support folks who have these type of feelings, whether it’s in a group, whether it’s individual work, whether it’s online trainings.

Leah: And I find that we need to give ourselves permission to take those breaks. To take care of ourselves. So, I invite you, listener, to try one of these strategies – take one of Cool Boulder’s Tree Tenders trainings (again, link in the description) or assign a worry hour or talk to someone, find community. And of course, there’s so many other strategies that we didn’t name in this episode. Really, it’s all about finding what works for you, finding what helps and exploring strategies to see what makes a difference. I know I’ll be writing poetry and laying on the Earth this summer.

Leah: We wanted to leave you with some words of wisdom from the high school students who you heard at the top of this episode.

Lahja: As hopeless as it seems, there is still hope. And even though it, seems like there's nothing you can do... there actually is a lot you can do. You can say stuff on a podcast or, just go out and love your environment. Experience nature so you can fight for it.

Lucy: You think about climate change as this huge thing that's stretching on forever and all these different aspects, it's very overwhelming. But if you think of it more as just like an aspect of time, like if you think about geological time, it's just this tiny little blip. Nothing's going to last forever. No trial that you're going through is going to define your entire life.

Chauncey: We just need to learn how to reconnect with nature and ourselves. And then of course, after that, we can start reconnecting with the world, which will then of course lead to a better, happier place, which I can see coming. It's coming.

Leah: This episode of Let’s Talk Boulder was produced and edited by me, Leah Kelleher. A special thanks to all the folks who joined me for this episode – Eva Jahn, Lodi Siefer, Louise Chawla, Lahja, Lucy, Chauncey and Beck.

A big thank you to my colleagues as well, Emily Sandoval, Heather Bearnes-Loza, Daniel Hanson, Emily Freeman, Sandy Briggs, Jamie Carpenter, Marya Washburn, Kerry Webster and our director, Jonathan Koehn.

Now we want to hear from you. How does the climate crisis make you feel? Where do you find courage and hope? What does hope mean to you? What does it look and feel like? Call 303-818-4678 and leave a voicemail sharing your thoughts. Your recording may be featured and edited for use in an upcoming podcast episode. We've put more details in our show notes.

Also, be sure to check out our show notes for links to resources mentioned in this episode. We’ve included links to community mental health resources offered by Mental Health Partners and other local organizations.

Show Notes

Wildfire preparedness tips and some honest conversations about the importance of supporting your neighbors.

Special guests in this episode:

  • Isabel Sanchez, Community Member
  • Jamie Carpenter, Wildland Operations Specialist
  • Kerry Webster, Wildland Fire Senior Program Manager
  • Brett KenCairn, Climate Senior Policy Advisor

This episode was hosted by Marya Washburn, Emily Sandoval and Leah Kelleher. It was produced and edited by Leah Kelleher. Theme music by Chad Crouch.

Resources mentioned in the episode:

Music in this episode (edited):


Isabel: We really do need a village to be able to survive these things. We could create little micro communities like we have in our park now and sustain each other. So get to know each other. Be willing to think outside the box.

Leah: I'm Leah Kelleher.

Marya: And I’m Marya Washburn.

Leah: And this is Let's Talk Boulder. OK, so the last couple episodes we talked about ties between the climate crisis and wildfire along with the tools we’re using build a more fire-resilient Boulder. If you're new to the show, I suggest pausing this episode and returning to it once you’ve had a chance to listen to the first two episodes. They’ll help you understand some of the topics we’ll be talking about in this one. Otherwise, stick with us.

Leah: Ok, Marya. Where should we start?

Marya: How about we start with embers.

Marya: If you think about you’re sitting around a campfire and it's the end of the night and the glowies...the pieces of charcoal that are glowing after you've had an awesome time around that campfire. Those are embers. Those are really hot pieces of flammable material that have turned into a sort of coal-like substance.

Leah: And when those embers, those sparks, hit the ground, it can create a fire – especially if the area where it lands is covered in dry fuels, like leaves and grass. It’s those downed, dead and dry logs that we’re most concerned about.

Leah: As they burn, they create more embers which can be carried by the wind to new locations and start more fires. In the first episode, we talked about the NCAR Fire, up on Boulder Open Space Mountain Parks property, south of the National Center for Atmospheric Research facility. (We call it NCAR for short).

Marya: The NCAR Fire, it burned low to the ground and was burning mostly grasses and bushes. Those things burn up faster and so they don't have as much time to create embers. If you have a big tree that catches on fire, that tree might burn for days. And so, you'll see firefighters, when they work on a fire, they're creating a containment line around the fire. It's like a fence. And that fence is to stop embers from traveling to an area you don't want to burn. You might have a tree on fire in the middle of an area that's contained and fundamentally the firefighters aren't worried about it.

We call them spot fires, where an ember will fly off of something that's in the fire and get pushed to the outside perimeter of the fire. And then you'll have a new sort of fire start.

When we think about the Marshall Fire, some of those houses started on fire, not because they were right next to fire, but because an ember landed somewhere that was flammable, that then started that house on fire.

They're powerful little fire starters and we don't have a way to catch those.

Leah: We might not be able to catch them, not in the air, but we can fight them by cleaning out our gutters and doing other maintenance around our homes.

Marya: Those little piles of things that you would start a campfire with. That's really it... if you know how to start a campfire, don't have that stuff next to your house.

If an ember falls into your gutter and your gutter’s full of leaves, that can set your house on fire.

Jamie: Embers get into weird, weird places. Roof, gutters, siding, vents, decks.

Marya: Think about when it's windy and you have stuff get stuck in the nooks and crannies of your house, the leaves, the pine needles, the pinecones... and the places where those things are getting stuck are also probably the places where embers will go, and so clear those places out. Make sure that those nooks and crannies don't have leaves and pinecones and pine needles and whatever else so that your house won't catch those embers.

Jamie: and there's data from some of the destructive fires that many more homes burned from embers landing in vulnerable places than they did from the flaming front.

Leah: That’s Jamie Carpenter. Jamie is a firefighter with the wildland fire division of Boulder Fire Rescue.

Alright, so it sounds like there’s a whole variety of things that we can do to keep our yards and homes from catching on fire. And we've already named quite a few, like cleaning out your gutters, raking leaves and pine needles out from under your deck, and of course, not keeping dry, woody mulch right next to your house. Is that it? Are there other things folks can do?

Marya: If you have trees that have branches that are really low to the ground, trim those up.

Kerry: You have to go in every year, you need to be cutting out the dead branches out of your shrubbery. You have to be raking all those leaves. There’s a lot of old pine trees. You need to get under there and you need to be raking out the pine needles.

Leah: That’s Kerry Webster...she leads a lot of our wildfire preparedness and prevention work.

Marya: Pick up some pinecones, cut up your tree limbs. If you’re someone that has a wood pile by your house, get that wood pile farther away and in a safe place, so if that pile started on fire, it wouldn’t start anything else on fire.

Jamie: Start close to your house and your house itself and employ some of the measures that can be found in the Wildfire Preparedness Guide.

Leah: You can find a link to that guide in our show notes.

Marya: Think about how to detract those fuels from traveling towards your house. If there’s a wood fence that could draw fire to your house. But there also might be dead plants or a tree that fell down. Make it so that fire would want to go a different direction and wouldn't necessarily head towards your house.

Jamie: The house itself and the immediate perimeter are usually the most vulnerable could be as easy as cleaning the leaves out from under your deck. You know, there's always a spectrum of good, better, best. And if good is realistic for you, then that's awesome. Do that.

I live in a mountainous area, so we don't have a lawn, but I weed whack the perimeter around the house and then rake it. And make sure that firewood is stored plenty far away from the house. And all the mess that I made splitting the firewood gets cleaned up and put farther away from the house.

Marya: I live in Boulder County unincorporated. My house doesn't have a fire hydrant next to it. It's on a dirt road. It’s mostly trees and some neighbors and rivers and bears.

Leah: We call these areas where our homes and other built human structures meet natural spaces, our wildlands. Those areas where those two things meet, we call them our wildland-urban interface, or WUI for short, which I think we can agree is the most fun acronym to say.

Marya: It's definitely the WUI and it's lovely because of that, right? But it's also the acknowledgment that if we have a wildfire start near our house, it's possible we'll lose our house. And that, for me, was part of what my partner and I just talked about when we bought the place. Like, are we willing to buy a place that might burn down in a wildland fire?

And we thought, yeah, it was it was worth it because we love where we live and we’re very outdoorsy people. Tied into that because I'm a wildland firefighter, when a fire happens nearby, I have to leave the house.

And so, my husband knows what to do, what to grab. We even have a list of if you've got 30 seconds, this is what you grab. If you've got five minutes, this is what you grab. And if he's got five seconds, he grabs the dogs and goes. I now know that if a fire drops nearby, he knows what to do and he'll get out of there safely, which lets me do my job as a firefighter and not have to worry about him.

It's a tough reality check. You have to think about those things in the WUI.

Leah: Well, and realistically, we should all be thinking about that. I should have a list... even living in almost the center of town. Yeah, if anything, it just provides that level of comfort.

Marya: My partner and I, we talk about how if there's a fire coming to our house, we want to be able to drive away from our house knowing we did everything we could. So, we mitigate, we take care of our trees, we pick up a bunch of pinecones and pine needles. We clear out our gutters, we check our air vents. I think it's empowering if you know you can do something.

Leah: Yeah, it helps to help us deal with the uncertainty. It's kind of like taking climate action.

Marya: and it is all about balance. We want to be doing everything we can to protect our homes, our yards and keep fire away. And we also want to support the landscapes that help us be resilient to climate change as a whole. So some folks might they might think that having a fire-wise yard means no trees and all rocks, but that’s actually not true.

Kerry: You don't have to cut all of your trees down.

Jamie: Most mature trees can stay. People are surprised sometimes, like “oh no, I thought that you know this large tree that I have that’s pretty close to my house needs to go”. Most of the time if the lower limbs are removed or there’s a non-combustible area in and around the base of that tree, then it can stay.

Marya: Right, yeah. I want to pick plants and trees that don't make big scary embers. And when I'm figuring out what trees and plants, I'm thinking about what might be the healthiest and safest where I live. My neighborhood is almost completely Ponderosa pine and some of us are trying to also get some aspens to grow back.

Kerry: Ponderosa pine has extremely thick bark. And if you look at the way they grow, from the ground up to the first set of limbs, they kind of self-prune, right. And so as the tree gets bigger, those lower limbs aren't getting the nutrients and the sunlight that they need to grow. And so, they die off and then they fall off. And that way, if a fire does come through the understory, it doesn't get up into the canopy. The tree bark, that thicker bark helps protect the tree.

Aspen stands, deciduous trees. Those are usually in riparian areas, or if they're in near your home, they've had a lot of water, so their moisture content is higher.

Marya: Ponderosas and aspens – they’re resilient, and so we’re working in that direction.

Leah: There are other fire-resilient plants too, like yucca...

Kerry: and it's awesome because there's only a single species of moth that actually can pollinate yucca, so you might get to see some of the moths come with those. They're usually pretty fire resistant. Yarrow and sage, you know, are great. They bring in a lot of different species, they’re drought tolerant. They don't require you to water them a lot either.

Leah: Another important part of wildfire preparedness is staying in the loop when an emergency happens.

Jamie: Sign up for emergency notifications. Continue to sign up for and maintain registration with the EVERBRIDGE program and with the evacuation notifications.

Marya: So you know that when something happens, you'll get that alert.

Jamie: And there's information on how to do that on the Fire Department website. And have an emergency preparedness plan -- an evacuation plan for any sort of emergency.

Leah: The city also has this online tool, called Zonehaven, that maps where active emergencies are happening in Boulder and it also provides real-time evacuation and emergency information, which shows up on that map.

Marya: Go check out that map and, you know, look at it for five minutes on your computer or your phone so that you understand how to navigate it – so that when the emergency is happening, you don't have to be spending time trying to figure out how to look at that map because our brains don't work as well when we're super stressed.

Kerry: So we stressed how important it was for individual homeowners to do those small things on their properties, right. And now we're thinking about connectivity and connectedness and being able to….we have to reach out to each other. But they're not mutually exclusive.

If you have an older neighbor, reach out. “Hey, I can go clean your gutters out for you, let me do that for you.” Embrace your community, take your own personal responsibility, and just you know, find the nice happy balance.

Leah: This community connection piece – knowing your neighbors and supporting them – it's something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. And when I think about it, I don’t know a ton of people in my neighborhood, but I am pretty confident that if an emergency happened, like a wildfire, that I’d be in touch with them. That we’d be communicating and sharing information and hopefully offering to help each other out.

Marya: In my neighborhood, I know which homes have someone that might need help getting out, or they might need us to get their dogs out. And, yeah, we just help each other out.

Leah: That’s so cool, and probably comforting. It reminds me of a conversation I just had with Emily Sandoval and Isabel Sanchez. Emily and I work together on our city climate team.

Emily: Hey everyone! So, I’m Emily, I lead community engagement for the climate department with the city. We caught up with Isabel about her efforts to strengthen her community's ability to bounce back and withstand climate disasters. And, she's a resident of the Mapleton Hill mobile home park here in Boulder.

Isabel: I've been in Boulder for about 14 years, and I've been the president of the Mapleton Mobile Home Association for about 13 years.

We do a lot of gardening. We ended up doing a chicken project and beekeeping and we have fruit trees, we have herbs, we have amazing stuff.

Emily: Isabel has been leading workshops – classes where people in her community gather to learn how to be prepared during emergencies, like wildfire.

Isabel: At the end of the class, we would have a little section where people would say something they thought of something they felt or a need they had. And what kept coming up, and it really moved me, was, we want to be trained to help our neighbor.

We want to be able to learn this so that when the time comes, we could team together and by the end of the training, all the messages were that, that they felt so empowered to have gone through the training, not only for the supplies they got, but that the knowledge that they heard within each other. We have about 18 people in our community that went to the training, that in an emergency they'll get activated right away.

Emily: Isabel, I want you to kind of take us back to that day that inspired you to create these trainings. A lot of people know about the Marshall Fire. It was the most destructive fire in Colorado history. But, what people may not realize is on that very same day, those winds that drove the Marshall Fire also impacted the Boulder community. Winds were knocking down trees, and it’s in that moment that you and your neighbor decided to come together and help your community prepare for disasters in the future.

Isabel: The day of the windstorm... all my neighbors started calling. Trees were falling. And I went outside and I started seeing residents. And I saw my neighbor, and she saw me and I was just calm as could be. And then she was like, I want your calmness. Can we talk? And so then, her and I got together,

We started hearing more information and realizing how vulnerable people felt. And we started dreaming.

Emily: And that dream started to come to life. You and your neighbor met, you decided that you wanted to create a peer-led class that would help your community prepare for future disasters, but that work doesn’t happen for free and it needed funding. So, you ended up asking the city and a group called the Climate Justice Collaborative of Boulder County to see if we would fund that work, and we ultimately gave you the money you needed for the first pilot project.

Isabel: We were trying to target the basics of like survival in an emergency, what documents to take, what to have in place in a bug out bag, what you need for your pets if you have to go to a shelter because you know dogs are not allowed in shelters.

Nobody wants to leave their animal, you know. They'll probably ride out the storm and not let go of their pet, you know. I think that it's exciting for me to see how much engagement or how much willingness the city is taking on to hear the voices of people that might not be at the table when these decisions are being made.

Emily: And in the context of a changing climate, we need to be ready for disruptions and disasters to happen more often. So, where do you see more opportunities for more trainings like this, and how can government, like the city, continue to support that work.

Isabel: Unfortunately, in communities like ours, there is not that much funding, I think in that sense. Stepping up and being able to donate, and get grants to be able to provide these materials just for basic survival. Some people don't even have a backpack. They're living paycheck to paycheck. It puts an extra burden of stress. That’s one of the things that came out of this class. The level of stress around climate emergencies was surreal. And, people are becoming aware that they're not ready for an emergency.

How do we train the communities to become leaders so that they could help each other? How do we train block captains, families, to be able to notice when there's a need and it’s not even being shared? We really do need a village to be able to survive these things.

Know your neighbor, knock on the door, talk, hear them. We don’t know unless we know. And we don’t know unless we take the time to really see what each other needs. We could create little micro communities like we have in our park now and sustain each other. So, get to know each other, be willing to think outside the box.

Marya: It's nice having those connections because it makes it easier to deal with the emergencies, too. It kind of helps create that sense of we might be able to get through this because we're in it together.

Leah: Yeah, definitely. And these community connections we’re talking about not only support us, but our firefighting community too.

Kerry: We lose firefighters every year – they choose to leave the profession. It’s getting harder and harder to do. The expectations are higher and higher.

Brett: As a community, we also might not recognize that impact.

Leah: This is Brett KenCairn. He leads the city’s nature-based climate solutions work, which includes connecting tree canopies, growing pollinator gardens, community science opportunities, and much more. We talked about all of that in the last episode. OK, back to Brett.

00:52:07:15 - 00:52:45:01

Brett: Part of what I'm wanting to know as a community member is, is there anything that we can do to support your profession... is there anything that we can know and hold as a community that at least gives those of you who have to face those kinds of things some sense of comfort and support in that?

Jamie: Thank you. First of all, we are lucky and privileged to get to do this job. To answer your question, come together as a community and confront this problem. Work together because one person on a block preparing their house perfectly is good for that house. But this is really it’s a community-wide, neighborhood-wide problem. So, that’s my ask, is come together as a community to embrace the problem and find creative solutions.

Kerry: The more that our communities across the entire U.S. can come together and work with each other to work on their neighborhoods, their homes, their areas... the easier it makes it for us.

It's a privilege to serve our community. Like Jamie said, it's a privilege to work with the people we get to work with. It's a family, you know, And I think that's one thing that keeps us here is just it's such a special people that do this job. And that always, you know that they have your back, whether it's on a fire, off a fire.

Brett: I don't know how many of you know Greg Brown, the folksinger. He loved to tell stories while he was singing songs and he was telling this story about living up in the Upper Peninsula. And he said, you know, you drive along in the wintertime and, you know, there’s a lot of snow there and it's cold.

And if you see somebody off, you know, in the borrow pit, you said you absolutely stop and you help them because, you know, the next time, and not very many cars go by and next time it might be you. He said this whole notion of community, there’s not much to it unless you recognize that community is when you depend on each other. Like, that's when community really is shaped and formed.

Jamie: Resiliency sounds like a really nice thing. It sounds like, you know, sitting on a couch with a cup of hot cocoa on a cold day, but it's hard work.

It's adapting to adversity. And that's not easy. It's really hard. Connectedness is key. And I love that we as a city are embracing connectedness as a key, because no one of the players that are coming together to address this adversity can do this by themselves.

Brett: In all the time that I have spent around the discussion of resilience, I have not heard it framed that way And I think that’s a really useful way to frame it. It’s connectivity that enables us to be resilient.

Leah: What a great note to end on. OK, so we all need to be doing our part to prepare our homes and yards for wildfire, we need local government and community partners to work on citywide strategies and use tools to create a fire-resilient Boulder, and we need strong community connections between people – between neighbors.

So, go outside, get those leaves out of your gutters, meet your neighbors, strike up a conversation. And we have a ton of great resources in our show notes to help you get started, including that Wildfire Preparedness Guide on our website.

This episode of Let’s Talk Boulder was produced and edited by me, Leah Kelleher...

Marya: With the help of me, Marya Washburn,

Emily: And me, Emily Sandoval.

Marya: and our City of Boulder colleagues. A special thanks to all the folks featured in this episode – Kerry Webster, Brett KenCairn,

Leah: Jamie Carpenter and Isabel Sanchez.

You can also find music credits in our show notes. And don’t forget to follow, subscribe, and if you enjoyed it, tell people you know to give it a listen. Thanks, see you next time.

Show Notes

Dive into tools and strategies that help create a more resilient, healthy community where people and other local life can thrive.

Special guests in this episode:

  • Kerry Webster, Wildland Fire Senior Program Manager
  • Brett KenCairn, Climate Senior Policy Advisor
  • Chris Wanner, Vegetation Stewardship Senior Manager
  • Zach Hedstrom, Mushroom Grower and Owner of Boulder Mushroom

This episode was hosted by Marya Washburn and Leah Kelleher. It was produced and edited by Leah Kelleher. Theme music by Chad Crouch.

Resources mentioned in the episode:

Zach Hedstrom's work with the Boulder Watershed Collective and Grama Grass & Livestock is funded by the Boulder County Climate Innovation Fund, which is funded in part by the City of Boulder.

Music in this episode (edited):


Brett KenCairn: Climate change is out of the box. We're living into a context we've never seen before. That means our environment in Boulder is going to be much more similar to what's in Albuquerque today than to what we've become accustomed to and think of as Boulder. And therefore, we ought to be thinking who lives in Albuquerque? Not just people, but who are all the other beings that live in Albuquerque who might be wanting to move into our environment? Now we're going to be living in a world that is full of change, and we have to develop a culture that's much, much better at how to do change.

Leah Kelleher: I'm Leah Kelleher.

Marya Washburn: And I'm Marya Washburn.

Leah: And the voice you heard at the start of this episode was Brett KenCairn. You're listening to “Let's Talk Boulder,” a City of Boulder podcast exploring our community, one conversation at a time. Last episode, we dug into how wildfires are made hotter, less predictable, more devastating and frequent by our changing climate. We also talked about the different types of fire – good, bad and really everything in between. So, if you haven’t checked out that episode, we encourage you to pause this one and go give it a listen. It’ll help you understand some of the concepts we’ll be discussing in this episode. And speaking of concepts, one of the key takeaways from last episode was that the connection between the climate crisis and wildfire has a lot to do with water.

Drier, hotter conditions that are being exacerbated by our changing climate are quite literally sucking moisture out of our landscape. And that lack of moisture is really what’s at the heart of the big, fast, and hot fires that we're seeing more and more. We're going to talk about some of the tools we use to fight fire before it happens -- tools that help us create a more resilient, healthy landscape where people and other local life can thrive. We've got a lot of tools in our toolbox – from prescribed burns to nature-based climate solutions. And we need all of them because some don’t work well in certain situations...we’ll get to all of that in a little bit. But first, let's take a step back. I hear the word “resilience” a lot these days – especially in the world of climate communications – the work that I do. We’ve actually already used it a couple times to introduce this episode. How would you define resilience, Marya, specifically when thinking about wildfire resilience.

Marya: When I think about wildfire resilience, I think about the whole spectrum from an individual house to an entire community to really just our whole ecosystem and how capable it is at withstanding... at the very least at withstanding good fire and having good fire be useful to it. So, I think about one of the first fires I was ever on was the Cold Springs Fire up near Nederland. And there's a great photo of a house. Three-hundred-sixty degrees around the house burned, but the house stayed standing. We always say there's probably a little bit of luck, but there was also some work that was done to be able to build enough barrier to help provide that resilience.

Leah: We could do a whole episode about preparing homes, yards and businesses for wildfire, and we did! That’s next episode.

Marya: And then in the bigger picture, what can we do as a community and as a larger group to help everyone be able to achieve that and feel safer and more ready for the next big fire that's going to happen.

Leah: Here’s Brett KenCairn from our climate team. He leads the city’s nature-based climate solutions work, which we’ll dig into later.

Brett: I think of resilience as the counterpoint to sustainability. Sustainability is basically built on the premise that we want the thing that's going on now to stay relatively the same, and we just need to figure out how to keep things going like that. Resilience is about that recognition that in fact all systems change. The world is not going to keep staying the same. So, if I keep configuring myself as if the world isn't changing, then ultimately that thing that I'm doing becomes less and less adapted to what's really the world. And that's what's happening around us – our systems are breaking down because they're no longer adaptive to the world that we actually live in. And so, resilience is about how do we now live in a changed world.

Marya: Yeah, and it's a way to do something within that change. I think that's part of the idea of resilience in general is being capable and willing to work on something throughout the change. Even if we're not glad the change is happening, per say, we'd rather have less fires and that doesn't appear to be the direction we're going.

Leah: But we do have some tools to build resilience in the face of climate change. Let’s talk about those tools. Marya, I figured we’d start with prescribed burns. First off, what are they? And what’s the right term to use? I’ve heard both prescribed fire and prescribed burns.

Marya: Right now, here locally, we're using the phrase prescribed burns. The word we try to stay away from as much as possible is control. We don't do a controlled burn. They used to be called that, but we don't want to create this false perception that we're ever in control of fire. We’re not superheroes, we don’t have like X-men powers. It's more of setting something on fire in such a prescribed way that we are confident in our ability to contain that fire.

Leah: There are different types of burns, right? I’ve heard you talk about prescribed burns, burn piles and agricultural burns. How are they similar and how are they different?

Marya: You bring up a great point that there are different types of burns. So, a prescribed burn, you're basically just setting the ground on fire. The burn piles or the agricultural burns that we do, where we'll burn along a ditch, or we’ll burn piles of fuel that we've cut.

Leah: And we’re not the first people to use fire to manage the landscape. Indigenous peoples have been using prescribed fires for millennia.

Kerry: It's a very complex process to go through and actually put fire on the ground – it's not something we do on a whim.

Leah: This is Kerry Webster with our Open Space and Mountain Parks Department. Her work focuses on building wildfire resilience here in Boulder. Okay, back to Kerry.

Kerry: It's a process that involves our ecologists who come up with some objectives and work with fire managers to write a prescribed burn plan to meet set objectives.

Marya: The general objective is to reduce buildup of hazardous fuels in a forest.

Leah: Like low tree limbs, dead trees, tall grass and other woody brush. Burning this material up reduces the amount of potential fuel for the next wildfire, but it also helps return nutrients to the soil and sometimes creates helpful habitat for wildlife.

Marya: We’re not learning that the way fires can help reduce and recycle vegetation in our forests is incredibly helpful and so, if we don’t burn off those overly dense, unhealthy forests, because those are the ones that can fuel large, high-intensity wildfires, we can be in a better place if we’re burning those off.

Kerry: It’s a process that we work through with Colorado Public Health and Environment through the Air Quality Division. So, just so you know when we do go through and use prescribed fires as one of our tools, it is done in a very calculated manner.

Marya: It's a fire that you plan ahead for. You make sure all of the boxes are checked with weather and the wind and where the smoke's going to go and what the fuel loads are. Will it be able to burn, but it won't burn too fast?

Kerry: And we determine through behavior modeling and experience what conditions we can and cannot burn in.

Marya: Even if all of the other boxes can get checked, but you don't have enough resources... if things go sideways, then we still won't do fires. So, there’s so much that goes into it.

Leah: Mmmm... and there’s a changing climate to consider.

Kerry: Because of the fuels drying out at rates we're not used to, at times of year we're not used to, we’re not getting the same fire effects at the end of our prescribed burns that we were anticipating. And what days we burn and what parameters we burn under is also shifting.

Chris: From just a planning standpoint, that impacts where we put our resources or when we have resources.

Leah: That was Chris Wanner. He manages vegetation on our Open Space and Mountain Parks.

Brett: I just have to wonder whether prescribed fire is going to be the tool that we thought it could be given the fire windows that we have, which are so limited now.

Leah: Brett is bringing up a great point. As the climate continue to change and our windows to do prescribed burns get smaller, we need different tools to fight fire before it happens. We need tools that help build healthy soils that can absorb and retain water.

Brett: What we need to be managing for, especially in the West, is water. And if we were managing towards retaining and cycling water in our landscapes, that is our best defense.

Zach: My name is Zach Hedstrom. I'm the owner of Boulder Mushroom. We're a local center for fungi, mushroom cultivation, education and using fungi in innovative ways to address climate change-related issues such as soil degradation, wildfire risk and other things.

Zach: A mushroom is a fruit. Sometimes we call it the fruiting body. So, you can liken a mushroom to an apple on an apple tree. And the mycelium – this is a network of cells, a net like structure, which grows inside of some kind of substrate. It might be underground, or it might be within wood or rotting pinecones, leaf litter...things like that. Wherever it’s living, but that is the body. So, the mycelium is like the apple tree, and the mushroom is like the apple.

Leah: OK, folks who know me know that I could nerd out about fungi all day, but let’s bring it back to wildfire and water. Zach has been working with the Boulder Watershed Collective to study how quickly fungi break down wood piles and wood chips created during wildfire management.

Zach: Essentially, we're taking mycelium and introducing it into whatever material that we want it to be growing in.

Leah: This process is called inoculation. For those who don’t know, the Watershed Collective is a local nonprofit based here in Boulder, and they work to protect our forested waterways, build resilience, and they help our community be good stewards of the land that feeds into our water system.

Zach: Mycelium are playing a lot of roles simultaneously while they're decomposing material, and this is one of the things we’re targeting with some of these projects. Fungi are able to decompose waste material and turn it into biologically active soil – soil which is full of life. Healthy soil is full of life, it's full of fungi, it's full of bacteria, it's full of protozoa, little invertebrates, worms, things like that. And this is an ecosystem in and of itself, underground, a microscopic ecosystem.

Leah: So, mycelium, fungi, could be a way to deal with all the woody material that’s created when we’re chopping off low tree limbs, clearing brush...

Zach: Historically, smaller fires would have cleared a lot of this brush and fuel out, but we live in an age of fire repression – for a good reason. There's homes and other infrastructure in forest environments, so we have to be careful with fires.

Marya: Yeah, prescribed fire can create a lot of smoke, and just like we can't control flames, we can't control wind. We can’t prevent a cloud of smoke settling on the city.

Zach: But, that being said, repressing fires means that that fuel just builds up and builds up. And then when a fire does come through, it can be incredibly devastating like we've seen in the past. So, one of those solutions is to inoculate it with fungi and turn it back into soil.

Zach: Mycelium and fungi help with moisture retention. Inoculated woodchips can hold two to three, even four times the amount of moisture in the mycelium than a non-inoculated woodchip or woodchips that don’t have any kind of fungi growing in it.

Brett: That's an absolutely staggering amount of additional moisture that's being held in those systems.

Zach: And the reason is, you could think of the mycelium is like a sponge. So, when the mycelium grows through the woodchips, it actually glues all of those woodchips together via a very dense mycelial network. And when moisture reaches that mycelial network, it essentially is absorbed into the sponge. When we talk about landscape regeneration, drought resistance, rejuvenating soil, sometimes the phrase absorbent landscapes comes up.

Brett: We're back to water. And when those systems start capturing water, then they become hydrated, less fire prone, and they start to become the seed beds for a whole bunch of other life.

Zach: We need landscapes which are able to catch and hold that moisture. It’s really incredible – you can dig through woodchips that are inoculated with fungi, and it might be really dry on the outside, and you'll feel moisture in your hands because they're holding on to that because they survive on that.

Brett: If we actually start to rehydrate our landscapes, they are so much more resilient and productive and they can deliver so many more ecosystem services, nutrient dense food, clean water, clean air.

Leah: Zach and folks he’s collaborating with are actually starting to spread mycelium-filled wood chips on one of the city’s open space properties.

Zach: And we believe that it's going to help in a couple of ways. It going to build biological activity within the soil. It's going to cool the soil surface; it's going to slow the flow of water and help with the uptake of moisture in that land. And I'm really excited about this project for a couple of reasons. It's innovative, it's nature-based, and it's also very collaborative.

Leah: Zach is also working with Grama Grass and Livestock.

Zach: Which is a rotational grazing organization, using rotational grazing to provide high-quality, grass-fed beef and as a tool for landscape regeneration.

Leah: This actually brings us to another tool in our wildfire resilience toolbox: grazing and vegetation management.

Chris: That's one of the options or one of the tools in our toolbox.

Leah: When we talk about grazing, we're usually talking about cattle, sometimes goats, eating tall grasses and other vegetation that could be fuel for a fire.

Marya: Right. In places, like where the NCAR Fire was.

Leah: The NCAR Fire burned southwest of Table Mesa, near the National Center for Atmospheric Research. It wasn’t a very big fire – about 190 acres, and firefighters were able to contain it rather quickly. And the fire was actually pretty helpful in that it burned up some of the fuels – the grasses and brush – that were building up.

Marya: That wasn't anywhere we'd do a prescribed fire. It's too close to the city.

Chris: That’s probably a burn that we would not have been able to pull off as a prescribed burn. It's just not in an area where you could draw a line and keep it in the box.

Brett: So, the NCAR fire was a perfect illustration that in some, if not many, we hope many instances of fire, if we been able to get in there and do appropriately designed fuel hazard reduction.

Chris: Grazing, forest thinning or restoring our forests that had fire suppression over 100 plus years. Using thinning or mechanical thinning – folks out there with chainsaws to mimic fire and reduce some of that density.

Brett: We can not only reduce the damage that happens, but we might actually be able to significantly enhance those systems.

Leah: All the tools we’ve talked about so far – grazing, forest thinning, fungi – they all fall into an umbrella of solutions called natural-based climate solutions. And actually, we could call prescribed burns nature-based climate solutions too because they are a natural part of our landscape. But all of these tools, all of these nature-based climate solutions, explore how we (humans) can harness what the natural world already does.

Brett: And how what it already does can actually address, repair and enhance what we're going to need more of – more shade, more water absorption capacity, more nutrient dense food, more clean air, and more clean water because we have so degraded all of those fundamental life support systems.

Leah: We can see how land is drying out across our region. And when there's not enough moisture to support vegetation, what were once green pastures turn into desert. When it gets to this state, scientists call the soil "degraded." Picture the dust bowl – huge clouds of soil blowing off of fields – that's what's at stake due to climate change.

Zach: When you look at millions of acres of degraded farmland soil, what do you do about that? The answer is make soil. Make millions of acres of soil. Now, obviously, that's much easier said than done, but you can put it into a formula. How do you build a handful of soil? How do you build, you know, a bucket of soil? How do you build one acre of soil and then how do you do a million of them?

Brett: And I think a lot of folks might forget that we face multiple crises around the fact that our systems aren't sustainable. Climate is one, biodiversity crisis – the extinction of species is another. The rapid advance of deserts, not just in Africa, but literally in our own backyards. All of these are consequences of systems that aren't sustainable. So, the notion of nature-based solutions to climate change is really I hope, about a larger field of recognizing that we have to change our relationship to the larger living world into one of reciprocity, or we're not going to be around here much longer. So many parts of the living world are just waiting for us to recognize that they're there.

Leah: And we’ve already recognized a bunch of them. Pollinator gardens that support butterflies, bees and birds – all of that beautiful, vibrant biodiversity that we want; absorbent landscapes that hold onto moisture and carbon; a healthy urban forest with connected tree canopies that cool our neighborhoods. Let’s chat about trees for a second because they also connect to fire.

Brett: Forests seed clouds. They literally do. There are dynamics of transpiration and the microbial things that are on the surfaces of those needles that are sending up particulates that then become parts of that water cycle.

Leah: Essentially the moisture in trees helps increase moisture in the air, and that creates more cloud cover. Trees also create shade, and shade means less water needs.

Regina: They can actually lower the irrigation needs for the surrounding area because those areas aren't being subjected to such a full sun. They're not getting that really hot direct sunlight and all that evaporation off the ground. But then when there are storm events, their roots go deep, and they go wide. They can help hold that water in the soil.

Leah: This is Regina Elsner.

Regina: I work for the City of Boulder Parks and Recreation Department. I supervise and lead our urban forestry team, as well as our natural lands team and our urban park rangers.

Leah: Regina’s team works to keep the trees in our city healthy. Many healthy trees equals a connected tree canopy.

Regina: A healthy urban canopy helps to mitigate heat island effect. So, all of that heat that gets absorbed by asphalt and concrete and buildings, and then is radiated back out into the environment. When we have trees, they help shade those buildings, help shade those areas. There's actually research that surface temperature can be as many as 20 degrees lower in areas that have urban canopy.

Leah: And they absorb and store carbon dioxide, which is a climate-warming greenhouse gas.

Regina: We set a goal of having approximately 16% urban canopy throughout the city. There's somewhere in the neighborhood of 600,000 trees, and it's really interesting when you start to dive in a little bit more in depth about where we have canopy, where we’re lower on canopy. It brings in this whole equity conversation about where there’s areas with lower canopy cover tend to be some of our areas with historically underserved populations. And so how do we best serve those communities as well?

Leah: This is a great question, and it has actually been a big focus for Brett’s team. And with the help of community members last summer, we mapped heat across our city on one of the hottest days of the year. We found that areas with very little vegetation and a high proportion, a high number, of hard surfaces – like roads and parking areas – were much hotter than places with trees and other plants. As much as 17 degrees hotter. We’ll include a link to those heat maps in our show notes in case you’re curious. OK, we’ve already discussed a lot of tools, and I’m sure there’s more we could dig into, but instead, I’d like to zoom out a bit. We have a team of city staff dedicated to exploring these questions and creating wildfire resilience strategies. We’ve called them the Wildfire Core Team.

Regina: We have representatives from Fire, Open Space and Mountain Parks, Parks and Recreation, Climate Initiatives, Utilities. There's also a representative from the County Office of Disaster Management. It’s really an effort for all of those departments to come together to help our community be more resilient to wildfire impacts.

Leah: You may be already getting a sense of this: building resilience is expensive work, but the passing of our Climate Tax last November, I think shows that our community is committed to creating a more wildfire-resilient city. One and a half million dollars of the money collected each year is dedicated to wildfire resilience efforts.

Chris: I think we’re really made an effort to pull all of the right people into the room. And I think there's a little bit of momentum that's followed the recent fires and the fact that we all need to kind of put our heads together on how we how we address this.

Marya: One of the first projects the team is working on is getting a new Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The plan will help identify our wildfire risks across the city, the tools we could use to reduce those risks, and suggestions on where we could focus those tools.

Leah: Yeah, I think it’s super exciting to see people in our community – those who work for the city and those who don’t, like Zach – come together to work toward common goals! Those goals being resilience and safety.

Leah: This episode of Let’s Talk Boulder was produced and edited by me, Leah Kelleher...

Marya: With the help of me, Marya Washburn, and our City of Boulder colleagues. Special thanks to all the folks featured in this episode – Kerry Webster, Brett KenCairn...

Leah: Regina Elsner, Zach Hedstrom and Chris Wanner. Give our show notes a quick look for wildfire resilience resources, music attributes and more.

Show Notes

Explore the connection between wildfire and the climate crisis.

Special guests in this episode:

  • Jamie Carpenter, Wildland Operations Specialist
  • Kerry Webster, Wildland Fire Senior Program Manager
  • Brett KenCairn, Climate Senior Policy Advisor
  • Chris Wanner, Vegetation Stewardship Senior Manager

This episode was hosted by Marya Washburn and Leah Kelleher. It was produced and edited by Leah Kelleher. Theme music by Chad Crouch.

Check out resources mentioned in the episode:

Music in this episode (edited):


Scanner voice: 2504 non-structure fire, 1245 Wildwood Road at Bear Canyon PH. Delta Response.

Scanner operator: 2590, starting to get a bunch of 911s – they said it's near the NCAR building.

Second scanner voice: So, I do have smoke on the back side of a knob. It's south and west of NCAR. Cannot see the fire itself. We're going to get geared up and hike up the Bear Canyon trailhead to get a good look at it...

Third scanner voice: Can you get a hold of some rangers? We need to start doing evacuations in the...

Fourth scanner voice: Zones two and three mandatory evacuation...

Marya Washburn: I was not in Boulder when the NCAR Fire started – I was down in Colorado Springs and was driving north back to town and started hearing that there is this fire in Boulder. And we were evacuating folks. Rolling up to it, it was really easy to see because we were above it. It was easy to see how close it was to some of the houses in Table Mesa.

And it was easy to see the firefighters just working on the line, digging line and how close they were. And those planes got very close as they were dropping and flew right over our heads. And I think I'll always remember watching, going up Table Mesa and seeing all the cars in the other direction and everyone kind of getting out of the area because they were scared for their homes.

Leah Kelleher: I'm Leah Kelleher.

Marya: And I'm Marya Washburn.

Leah: And you're listening to Let's Talk Boulder, a city of Boulder podcast exploring our community, one conversation at a time.

Well, since this is our very first episode, I think it's worth introducing ourselves and the show a little bit more. This show is going to dig into some pretty complex topics like wildfire, climate change, community resilience and many more. And along the way, you're going to hear from those of us who work for local government, local leaders and your neighbors. And we hope you'll walk away from each episode feeling a bit more connected to this place we call home.

Marya: Mm hmm.

Leah: Like I said, I'm Leah. I lead communications for all things climate. I work with folks from our Climate Initiatives team to help our community better understand the work we do... how we're making our energy systems cleaner and more equitable, how we're building a more circular economic system that reuses and reduces our consumption. And, of course, nature-based climate solutions, which we'll be discussing in the first couple of episodes of this show.

Marya: It's going to be awesome. And I'm Marya Washburn. I lead communications for all things fire as a public information officer for the City of Boulder. They also call those folks PIOs, so you'll probably hear me say that in the podcast a bit. With the Fire Department, I work in the fire and emergency response world to help our community better understand how fighting fire happens and how people can be safe in all of those sorts of emergency situations that we see.

I've also been a firefighter at my local volunteer department in Lyons for about ten years.

Leah: Before we jump in, we wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the many different emotions that may come up for folks while they're listening to this episode. We're going to be talking about some potentially triggering topics like wildfires that have happened in our own backyard or in neighboring communities.

Marya: Just last year, we had two significant fires that were really close to home. We had the NCAR Fire in March of 2022, and then the Marshall Fire was just a few months before that at the end of December in 2021. As many of us know, that was a pretty devastating fire, and it's now the most destructive fire in Colorado history in terms of property loss.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also known as NOAA, they put together a super cool story map that takes you through the Marshall Fire from spark to recovery. We'll put a link to that in the show notes. Definitely give that a look to get some more info on that fire. So, that's all to say that we've seen firsthand and experienced firsthand, especially recently, the devastation that wildland fires can cause here in Boulder.

Leah: Yeah. I know for me, even when the wind starts to pick up, I get that knot of anxiety.

Marya: Right.

Leah: But we hope that through listening to the conversations in this episode and the next two episodes, you'll walk away feeling a bit better, more prepared and more resilient. Okay, let's jump into it. So, we chatted with a bunch of different folks who work for the city, who come from different backgrounds, different departments.

Marya: We sat down with Brett, Chris, Kerry and Jamie. Jamie Carpenter is on Boulder Fire Rescue, and he's part of the Wildland Fire Division and has years of experience with wildland fire.

Leah: We also had Brett KenCairn from our Climate Initiatives team. Brett leads a lot of our nature-based climate solutions work, which is everything from connecting our tree canopies above our heads to creating absorbent landscapes which absorb carbon and water beneath our feet.

Marya: Yeah. And then we had Kerry Webster...

Leah: She's with our Open Space and Mountain Parks Department and is their new Wildfire Program Manager – working to coordinate wildfire projects, from planning to implementation, across the open spaces and mountain parks where we hike and spend a lot of time outdoors.

Marya: We also have Chris Wanner, who is with Open Space and Mountain Parks, and he's been with the city for a while and has really been a fundamental part of figuring out how to best manage our wildland-urban interface that exists on our Open Space and Mountain Parks.

Leah: One second, Marya. I feel like I've heard that term, wildland-urban interface, thrown around quite a bit as we've been talking about wildfire and what we do about it, all that good stuff. What does that mean for folks who don't know?

Marya: So, the WUI, it's fun to say which is I think part of why I love it. Wildland urban interface is where an urban environment is next to a wildland environment. So, Boulder's a great example of a WUI environment. We have the Flatirons, which are beautiful, amazing hiking all this open space, mountain parks, Forest Service land nearby. And that's a wildland environment.

And then we have Boulder. We've got a place that has a much higher potential for a wildland fire start, and it's next to a community that would be really detrimentally affected if we had a wildland fire nearby. So, we're really conscious of those WUI environments because of that risk.

Leah: Thanks – that's a helpful definition. OK, so one of the big topics for this episode and one of the things we talked about a lot in creating it was the connection between the climate crisis and the increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires that we're seeing in Boulder. And that connection seems to center on water.

Marya: Right.

Leah: And really the lack of it.

Brett KenCairn: We have been sort of trained in the era when there was still a lot of controversy about whether climate change was happening, to call it climate change instead of talking about global warming. In fact, it's about global warming. The earth is warming up, and one of the consequences of that is that we are creating conditions in which forests in particular are going to get drier because of these hotter summer conditions.

And then you combine very dry forests with some form of ignition and you're going to have more and more intense fires.

Leah: This is Brett KenCairn.

Brett: These new mega-fires that are getting started are both driven by and create weather patterns that can dehydrate landscapes, literally, literally suck the moisture out of them. They become explosively possibly fire-prone.

Jamie Carpenter: From at least my perspective, starting out in fire quite a few years ago now, it was, “oh, we had some rain, or we had some snow, we had a precipitation event will be good for X amount of days – we'll be good for a week with the rain that we got.” Now, we'll be lucky if we're good for a day, and as we sit here now, on March 9th in a red flag warning day, where we just had two days of pretty, cool wet weather with rime ice on the trees at high elevations... there is no normal. There's just today.

Leah: This is Jamie Carpenter.

Jamie: What are the conditions today? How worried are we based on that data?

Brett: When I first joined the city and started working on this update of our Climate Action Plan, one of the things that I came across was this National Academy of Sciences study about the projections for fire risk in the Western United States based on climate change. We were still arguing about whether climate change was happening and whether our activities were somehow influencing it.

Brett: So, it's in that kind of a context that this report comes out and it mapped the Western U.S., but especially the Intermountain West, and it showed that our area was going to face a 600% increase in fire incidents. It was kind of like jaw dropping and people were like, is that a misprint? 600%? And of course, you know, subsequent to that, we've had so many incredibly devastating fires, including the one in our backyard last year.

Leah: Here's Chris Wanner.

Chris Wanner: We always talked about we're in fire season and what that means and the fact that June, July, August were our real active times of the year that we needed to be considering fire. And now it's January, February, March – you know, there is no real end to the season.

Leah: That was Chris Wanner.

Marya: We used to get a good rain and be like, “ah sweet, we're set for weeks,” and now you get a good rain and then two days later it's really windy and you're like, “hey, look, day three, red flag day.”

Leah: We can't really talk about fire in Colorado without acknowledging that it's a natural part of our landscape and it can be good for our living systems like forests.

Brett: These systems actually evolved with fire over millennia, and fires are a very important nutrient-cycling system.

Leah: Healthy burns, those slow-moving and cooler fires, actually release nutrients locked up in dead plant and animal matter, and return those nutrients to the soil, which creates healthier soils. When we talk about natural fire, we're talking about fire that isn't started by human beings. Instead, it's started by something natural, like a lightning strike.

Marya: A lightning strike fire is often a less scary fire because it's happening further away from people.

Leah: And they've historically been accompanied by thunderstorms that bring rain.

Marya: You see a lightning strike fire, and you might be able to stop and think, how do we have to attack this? Because they're usually more rural and remote, and can we use it to our advantage to help burn off some stuff that needs to get burnt off? Or do we need to go put some water on it and dig some line around it?

Jamie: You know, think about a lightning strike in a ponderosa pine and fire just kind of gently creeping around doing its thing, cleaning up some of the forest floor. And then the next thunderstorm putting it out.

Leah: But then, of course, we have climate change, which is dramatically changing how we're seeing fire behave, whether it's the year-long fire season, the repeated red flag days, or just the fact that rain no longer provides us enough moisture to feel comfortable for weeks that we might not have another red flag day or the threat of fire starting. And pair that with our inability to sometimes let fire do its thing, say if it's too close to a community, and then we get into a pretty tough situation.

Brett: We've fought fires and contained fires for so long that that natural factor that used to keep those fuel loads in balance has been removed.

Leah: We've found it useful to label fires as good and bad when thinking about the helpful roles fires can play versus how destructive they can be.

Marya: When we call it good fire, it doesn't mean it wasn't stressful or scary for folks. And the reason I say that first is because the way I like talking about good fire versus bad fire is... the NCAR Fire is a good example of a good fire. It was scary. People had to evacuate. I want to acknowledge that for sure.

But it was not a hot, fast, intense and tall fire. They use the word crowning. You think about a crown is on the top, the crown of the trees will burn. And if the fire is moving from crowning and moving from tree to tree, that's a scarier fire. That's a bad fire. That's a harder fire to stop because that's a part of the ecosystem that's harder to put out versus if it's on the ground and you can dig a line and kind of create that perimeter around a fire.

So, the NCAR Fire was a good fire because it stayed low to the ground – primarily. It moved in such a way that firefighters were able to get ahead of it and set up hose, and water, and dig lines. We could get airplanes in the air putting retardant down because it wasn't too windy.

Jamie: We like our job. We like fighting fire, but we like it when it's attainable. There's some green grass, there's, you know, the fuel moisture in the trees is such that fire is going to move a little bit, but we know we're going to catch it.

Marya: And it's interesting because if that fire had been not so close, it would have been sort of the ideal prescribed fire. We would have wanted it to be a little bit less windy, but that's the kind of fire that you want to have burn to help your ecosystem safer.

Chris: That's one of the benefits of fire that you can always replicate. You think of the grasses and the needles and all that stuff on the ground that you're not going to rake up. There's no other way to address those small fuels out there. That's probably a burn that we would not have been able to pull off as a prescribed burn.

You know, it's just not in an area where you could draw a line and keep it in the box.

Jamie: When I think about good fire, I think about fire that's meeting an objective.

Marya: They burn up fuels that we want them to burn up like the brush and other woody material down at the lower levels of the forest, the ones that we'd like to clear out to make for a healthier landscape.

Leah: And they don't damage our soils and kill all the trees in an area which is incredibly important to keep ecosystems intact.

Chris: It's really that balance between what the impacts are to the native system and the impacts to more of the urban and human systems. When you mix in the wildland-urban interface, you know, you've got homes adjacent to those wildland fuels. The picture becomes a little more fuzzy. Any fire next to somebody's home or in somebody's neighborhood is not going to be an ideal situation.

Leah: This fuzziness Chris describes is the gray area between good and bad fire. So, we can consider a fire good in some ways, like the NCAR Fire burning away all those fuels that could have led to a bigger, more destructive fire in the future. But it was also a bit too close to homes. So, like most things, there is a gray area, and a fire is often not purely good. It can be a little bit of both good and bad.

Marya: We also see gray area in good fire and bad fire when conditions might change. So, the Cameron Peak Fire, in the middle of that fire occurring, there was a day where it snowed and it doused a lot of the fire and that kind of changed conditions – it helped it make it easier to fight. And then things dried out again and winds picked up and then it made it bad fire again because it was hard to catch and was moving so fast. So, things such as weather, wind, how hot it is, those can definitely change those nuances of good fire versus bad fire.

Leah: We've kind of described it already, but what is bad fire? What does that look like?

Marya: It's the fires that are so hot and so fast that we can't get a handle on them. Firefighters never want to say that they are controlling the fire because you don't control things like that. But you can confine and contain, and that's what we work to do on fires – on wildfires. With a bad fire, it's hard to find a way to confine and contain it.

And the worst bad fires are the ones where it's burning near a community and then you're just trying to get the people out. And you save everyone you can, and then you try to get ahead of that fire. We saw a lot of bad fires in Colorado in 2020, the three largest fires in Colorado history, at least as of this recording, all happened that fall in 2020.

We hadn't had as good of a snowpack that winter and by spring there were pretty bad drought conditions around the state and the ground and fuels there just weren't retaining the moisture that they needed. And then that, coupled with us being in the throes of the COVID pandemic, had fire departments across the state pretty concerned for the well-being of their communities. We were worried something big was going to happen, and then we got some pretty big fires.

Leah: Yeah, Jamie and Kerry were both at the Pine Gulch and Calwood fires, which were two bad fires that burned in 2020. Pine Gulch was started by a lightning strike near Grand Junction and East Troublesome and was human caused and started north of Kremmling.

Kerry: When we got the call to Pine Gulch, that oh man, “by the time you guys drive over to the back it's going to be out because the wind's going to stop blowing and it's not going to go anywhere. And the wind just didn't stop blowing. The fuels were so dry. We were taking weather observations and we have belt weather kits...

Leah: Belt weather kits are these handy tool kits that firefighters use in the field to get a sense of what the wind, and humidity, and weather is doing in their exact location. It's very analog in the sense that no electronics are necessary. It's just simple tools, some charts, paper, a pencil. They're very useful for firefighter awareness and safety.

Kerry: And they have a chart on them that tells us elevation, you know, what your relative humidity is, and it was so low, it was off the chart, and we had to use our phone app to do that. Which then tells you what your fuels are like. It was the largest fire in Carter's history at that time.

Leah: I read that it ended up burning a little over 139,000 acres, and East Troublesome beat it a couple of months later. It burned more than 193,000 acres.

Jamie: We had returned from Pine Gulch when East Troublesome started. And the hairs still stand up on the back of my neck thinking about those conditions, a fire start in that area, and having some really close personal connections to that area. I was really concerned.

Marya: And that's the day it jumped the divide, which quote unquote, was never supposed to happen. I feel like we're seeing more and more of that in the past ten years of quote unquote, that never happens, and then the next season it happens, such as the East Troublesome jumping the Continental Divide at over 10,000 feet.

Jamie: And sure enough, we were standing on the other side of the divide on the Calwood Fire when it made its big run. And I remember having this terrified moment looking up at this purple sky going, please don't let that be our firing operation. That was a remarkable fire behavior day.

Brett: Which we're going to see many more of.

Jamie: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Marya: I remember talking to firefighters after the Marshall Fire, how difficult it was to try and not be able to effectively get ahead of the Marshall Fire. And then it really turned into, let's just make sure we can get everybody out and see if we can capture little pockets of this fire. But that was a really rough day for the local firefighting community and for everybody.

It was going so fast we couldn't get ahead of it. It paradigm shifted us to the idea of this could happen to anybody and this could happen to the suburban world. Which the firefighting community, I think was aware of based on a couple other fires that have happened in the U.S. and in Canada recently, where it's turned into – the word they use is conflagration, where it's not the trees catching the next tree on fire, it's the houses catching the next house on fire.

And the Marshall Fire was a configuration, and that was a really tough reality check. It definitely increased the amount of people in Boulder that wanted to have wildfire home assessments and see what they can do to mitigate the risk for their homes and then for their community.

Leah: So, where do we go from here?

Brett: I think that one of the things we're going to have to grapple with is, we're going to be living in an entirely different circumstance than we lived in for a long time. And how are we preparing our policies and procedures to live in that world, especially around like how we manage ecosystems? I mean, think about how much fire behavior has changed just in the last decade.

Chris: From just a planning standpoint that impacts where we put our resources or when we have resources. From a land management standpoint, you know, our windows for prescribed burning or on the ground management has gotten shorter and shorter because it is so dry and we can't reintroduce fire.

Leah: This is a great segue into our next episode. So far, we set the scene what's good fire, bad fire, the gray area between and how the climate crisis is connected. We've essentially outlined the problem, but there are solutions and we're doing them.

Marya: Yeah, and that's where we're headed and focusing on in episode two, how do we fight fire before it happens? What are things the community can work on? How do we create a more resilient built and natural environment that really helps us prevent those big, bad fires, and helps us recover faster and hopefully better in ways that we can just be more resilient and more ready for the next thing.

Leah: And if you got 30, 40 more minutes to listen, jump into the next episode. It's going to be good.

Leah: This episode of Let's Talk Boulder was produced and edited by me, Leah Kelleher.

Marya: With the help of me, Marya Washburn, and our City of Boulder colleagues. A special thanks to all the folks featured in this episode Kerry Webster, Brett KenCairn...

Leah: ...Chris Wanner and Jamie Carpenter. Be sure to check out our show notes for wildfire resources, music attributes and more. And subscribe! Tell your friends. Spread the word about this show so we can get more and more folks listening. Thanks – see you next time!

Somos Boulder

Un pódcast sobre servicios, programas e información relacionados con el Gobierno de la ciudad de Boulder. Las conductoras Jhocelyn Avendaño y Manuela Sifuentes entrevistan a empleados municipales, así como a miembros de la comunidad y a expertos en temas que son importantes para la comunidad de Boulder, Colorado.

Listen to Somos Boulder
Get the Latest News and Updates on the City of Boulder