BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — The cities of Louisville and Superior came dangerously close to running out of water as firefighters from around the state fought the Marshall Fire. The water treatment plant in Superior was shut down because part of it caught fire, while the other two plants in Louisville were overwhelmed by the demand.
A team of public works and utilities employees from the City of Louisville stayed behind as the area evacuated, making decisions they’d never thought they’d have to make to keep their city from being completely destroyed.
As the water pumps were beginning to run empty, the decision was made to send raw, untreated water out from the water treatment plant so that the fire hydrants wouldn’t run dry on Dec. 30 and the days that followed.
9NEWS spoke with five public work and utilities employees with the city of Louisville who were working the day the Marshall Fire spread through Boulder County. These are their stories:
Kurt Kowar, director of public works and utilities, City of Louisville
"It’s absolutely one of the craziest if not the craziest day of my life."
Kurt Kowar runs the public work and utilities department for the City of Louisville. On Dec. 30, he was in charge of the city's two water treatment plants that were supplying water to the firefighters battling the flames.
"The water treatment system, it’s just kind of assumed that it’s going to be there and it’s just going to work. It’s kind of an afterthought. Through this event, the water system became kind of a life line," said Kowar. "Based off how windy it stayed all day and how hard they had to fight those fires, we would have run out of water probably early in the afternoon."
The decision was made amongst the team to release raw, untreated water through the pipes in the city to ensure the firefighters wouldn't run out of water.
"There’s a split second where you have to make a paradigm shift. Public health and safety isn’t about clean drinking water. It’s just about having enough water in the pipes to fight a fire," said Kowar. "He called and said this is the last hope we have. Should we do it? We had a split second conversation and we said it’s all we got. Let’s do it. At that point, the community is on your mind. You’re just trying to give everyone a chance, whatever that means at that moment."
Jeffrey Owens, water plant operator, City of Louisville
"We had to supply as much water as fast as possible to the fire department."
Jeffrey Owens is a water plant operator with the City of Louisville. He was the first person at the facility to spot the fire and call 911.
"Called 911 to report the fire and just a few minutes after that we saw the fire trucks heading down there," said Owens. "I had no idea that it would turn into what it did."
Owens evacuated. Then headed back to the water treatment plant in Louisville to get the water running, driving through the fire and flames to get there. The treatment plant in Superior had been damaged by the fire and was off-line. The two water treatment plants in Louisville were struggling to meet the demand of hundreds of firefighters using the water to fight the Marshall Fire.
"The fear was running out of water," said Owens. "Our tanks were very close to empty at one point."
Owens had to check the levels of water left in the tank, forcing him to climb a tower in hurricane force wind. The tanks were nearly out, helping them make the decision to release raw, untreated water to make sure the hydrants did not run out of water.
"It felt like you were in a movie or something to that effect. It just did not seem real," said Owens. "It looked like a war zone is the best way that I would describe it."
Greg Venette, chief plant operator, City of Louisville
"It went from health and safety to life and safety at that point."
Greg Venette made the decision to release the raw, untreated water for the plant so that firefighters would continue to be able to fight the Marshall Fire. He's the chief plant operator at the facility.
"Made the decision to turn on the valves manually to let raw, untreated water through the plant in order to just supply water," said Venette. "It was against every fiber of my being to do that, but it had to be done."
Venette had never had to make a decision like that. The only water that usually goes out of the plant and into the city is clean. On the day of the Marshall Fire, they had no other options.
"It went from health and safety to life and safety at that point," said Venette. "I think the entire public works department felt the weight of the city on us for those few days."
He drove Owens through the fire and flames to make it back to the plant after being evacuated.
"I said this is going to be really dangerous. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If you’re not comfortable with this, I’m not going to blame you," said Venette. "There were trees on fire, houses, trees across the road, power poles, power lines on the road. It was pretty crazy."
All to get the water running and try and help save Louisville and Superior.
Cory Peterson, deputy director of utilities, City of Louisville
"Typically we’re very much behind the scenes folks."
Cory Peterson is the deputy director of utilities for the City of Louisville. When the water treatment plant lost power he waited for Xcel Energy to drive trucks to the area and drop off natural gas to get the plant running again.
"The word I keep using is 'surreal,'" said Peterson.
Once the plant had power again, the pumps could push more water out to the cities and firefighters.
"We’re the life blood for the firefighters," said Peterson. "Without water, it’s very hard to contain those fires."
Shane Mahan, operations technician, City of Louisville
"Everyone looked like they had just gone 12 rounds with Mike Tyson. They were tired and beat up."
As the fire swept through town, it left homes destroyed. Water was gushing out from the broken pipes, a valuable resource being wasted. Shane Mahan rushed out to turn the water off at as many homes and neighborhoods as possible. He's an operations technician with the City of Louisville.
"Each one of these burned homes, there’s water spraying out of all the meters, pipes, things like that. We’re talking about thousands and thousands of gallons of water here," said Mahan. "We were going house to house to shut off these lines as they were still burning."
Little by little, they were working to preserve as much water as they could.
"If you don’t have water to fight a fire, at that point you’re fighting it with hopes and dreams. There’s really nothing to really stop it," said Mahan. "We knew that our main jobs was to try and save the city, the best way we could. And this was the best way we could."
They were fighting to save their city.
"We told ourselves, we are not going to lose this city," said Mahan. "We told ourselves, we are going to work our tails off to try and get everything back online and save as much as we possibly could."
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