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Boulder County Sheriff faces fire recovery during final year in office

“We will get through this. It’ll be okay," Sheriff Joe Pelle said.

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — Sheriff Joe Pelle had the car packed ready for a trip to Douglas County to visit his son when all hell broke loose Thursday.

The longtime sheriff of Boulder County was headed to visit his son Jeff, a Douglas County Sheriff’s deputy who was wounded in a high-profile shooting four years earlier on December 30, 2017, when Douglas County Deputy Zach Parrish was ambushed and killed by a shooter in an apartment building. Jeff Pelle has since recovered from that shooting. His family calls it Jeff’s ‘alive day’. Sheriff Pelle said his family celebrates each year by going out to brunch and toasting his son’s successful recovery on Dec. 30.

But the trip to Castle Rock to mark the fourth anniversary was cancelled because Sheriff Pelle had to respond to a wildfire.

“All the alarm bells are going off… and it’s like oh my god it’s not going to be a good day,” Pelle said in an interview with 9NEWS Sunday, days after the Marshall Fire burned through Louisville and Superior, destroying nearly 1,000 buildings and damaging more than 100 others.

RELATED: 2 missing, 991 homes destroyed in Marshall Fire

The day started in the foothills above Boulder with the Middle Fork Fire. Pelle said there was a lot of concern about that blaze early, but the fire moved into a valley and laid down out of the winds. It was then he got a call that another fire was burning down the hill.

“I’ve been through this before and I know when it’s that windy and that dry that nobody’s going to drive off in a fire truck and put it out…it’s off to the races,” Pelle said.

“When the fire’s so fast…the radio traffic was so desperate,” he recalled. “Our guys were literally racing 100 miles an hour trying to get ahead of it to get people out of harm’s way.

Several deputies were injured trying to get people to evacuate, Pelle said. Several deputies got embers and ash in their eyes and one deputy had burns all over his neck and the back of his head. Pelle said those burns were not caused by direct contact, but rather by the searing heat of the blaze that rocketed over the suburbs at speeds faster than traffic.

Firefighters couldn’t make any progress on the growing fire until the winds died down. It was then, Pelle said, he learned the fire hit close to home.

Pelle said he learned the fire destroyed Louisville Police Chief Dave Hayes’ home. Then he learned it also took the home of Boulder County Sheriff's Division Chief Curtis Johnson.

“Curtis Johnson called and was in tears and his house was gone… everything he owned, his cars, everything melted in the driveway and the basements a smoking hole,” Pelle said.

He put Johnson, a close friend of his, on paid administrative leave while the division chief worked to find temporary housing for his family.

“You just put yourself in their place,” Pelle said of Hayes and Johnson. “They don’t have underwear. They’re out working with the clothes on their back in a company car and that’s all they got. That kind that chokes you up thinking about that.

“This starts becoming really personal at that point, because it’s not just business anymore. You’re not just trying to accomplish tasks. You’re grieving for people.”

RELATED: How to help Boulder County fire victims

Pelle said he’ll always remember the night of the Marshall Fire as chaotic, but pointed out it was managed chaos.

“We’ve been through this a lot,” he said.

Pelle won his office first in 2002, officially starting the job in January of 2003. About two months later, he was responding to his first disaster, when 88 inches of snow fell during a blizzard, trapping people in Nederland and at the Eldora ski area.

“Our emergency operations center was a lunchroom where the phones pulled out of the ceiling and you had to set up folding tables,” Pelle remembers.

The emergency incident team only had a couple of permanent employees.

“I realized that day, one of the most important things I had to do for our county was to build a really strong emergency management center,”

It proved to be an important decision, as the next 19 years of Pelle’s tenure would be beset with unfortunate tragedy.

Under his leadership, the agency has responded to the 2003 Overland Fire, the 2009 Olde Stage Fire, the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire, the 2016 Cold Springs Fire and the 2020 Calwood and Left Hand Canyon Fire. The sheriff’s office also responded to the historic flooding of 2013 and helped Boulder Police responding to the 2020 mass shooting at a King Soopers.

Because of its response to all of those natural disasters, Pelle said emergency managers from around the country and around the world have studied Boulder’s approach to emergency management.

But the sheriff admits, he’s learned every disaster is different.

“It means a lot to me to protect, to serve and to do that with character and be competent at it that kind of thing,” Pelle said. “Sometimes you just don’t have control and understanding that some things are out of your control…that’s real hard for a guy like me.”

The sheriff of 19 years will retire at the end of his term in January 2023. He said as he reaches his mid-sixties, he’s starting to have some health problems which made him realize it’s time to let someone else have a turn at the job he loves.

Pelle acknowledges his retirement comes as his county encounters a tremendous challenge, recovering from the Marshall Fire. But he said, in his experience, Boulder County has always bounced back.

“Within a couple of years…things are rebuilt… the economy’s going again. People are working,” he said. “We will get through this. It’ll be okay.”

Contact 9News reporter Steve Staeger with tips about this or any story by e-mailing steve@9news.com.

RELATED: Louisville fire chief reflects on Marshall Fire