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Marshall Fire: Via Mobility Services Travels Through Flames To Rescue Boulder County Residents

Photo courtesy of Tonya Runnels.

On the morning of December 30, 2021, the City of Boulder’s Transit Program Manager, Danny O’Connor, drove down to Denver to visit family with his wife and daughter. By the time he arrived, Danny had received notification that the Boulder County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) had activated in response to the Marshall Fire. Initial reports indicated that the emergency may require coordinating transportation for evacuees. He returned home to pick up his dog and laptop and went to Boulder to staff the OEM, uncertain if the fire would impact his neighborhood.

Around the same time, Lisa Bitzer, Via’s Director of Operations, saw smoke down the road from Via’s Boulder headquarters facility and prepared to act as one of the county’s Second Responders. Bitzer contacted O’Connor to let him know that Via was on standby. “Having Via ready at the onset and plugged into OEM efforts was critical for timely response to evolving transportation needs during the emergency,” O’Connor shares. 

An hour later, the OEM contacted Bitzer to begin helping with evacuations. Bitzer managed Via’s response, staying in contact with O’Connor and Boulder County staff at the OEM throughout the day. O’Connor authorized Via to use HOP public buses, owned by the City and operated by Via, to help evacuate people. “We’re so grateful to Via for everything they did and do,” O’Connor reflects, recounting Via’s support with evacuating people from the CalWood and Lefthand Canyon Wildfires in 2020.

Via coordinates with the OEM and their Disaster Assistance Center (DAC) to assist with evacuations from the fires, bringing resources to victims, and moving people to different shelters. 

Via evacuated almost 100 people with mobility limitations from senior living facilities, hospitals, homes, and apartments to designated evacuation sites and safe places with friends and family members.

Where Did Via Evacuate People During Marshall Fire?

  • Centennial Peak Hospital, Louisville to Highlands Behavioral Health, Littleton
  • Peaks at Old Laramie Trail, Lafayette to AltaVita Assisted Living, Longmont
  • Juniper Village, Louisville to Golden Lodge Assisted Memory Care, Golden
  • Sunrise at Flatirons, Broomfield (vehicles sent here were not needed to help evacuate)
  • Via worked with Boulder Housing Partners to evacuate local residents of Lafayette and Louisville to the YMCA, Lafayette

After the immediate danger of the fire ended, Via continued helping people at temporary shelters get to work, move to different shelters and back to their homes, as well as deliver vital supplies like food and water. Via will continue working with the OEM and DAC until our support is no longer needed.

Evacuating Balfour Senior Living Memory Care Center in Louisville

Nothing takes a higher priority at Balfour than treating every resident with the deference, dignity, and attention they deserve. Balfour was successful in evacuating its residents from Marshall Fire. The facility water pipes froze over the next few weeks and began leaking, including their emergency sprinkler system. Balfour called on Via to help evacuate residents while repairing the faulty system. Via drivers Cecelia Younger and Doug Stiles moved people and their belongings to safety, including mobility devices like walkers and wheelchairs.

Via Mobility Services Honored for Evacuating Patients at Centennial Peaks Hospital from Marshall Fire

Staff photo at Centennial Peaks Hospital

Left to right: Tonya Runnels, Director of Human Resources at Centennial Peaks Hospital; Lisa Bitzer, Director of Operations at Via Mobility Services; Adriana Torres, Operations Manager at Via Mobility Services.

Centennial Peaks Hospital honored the first and second responders who helped evacuate patients from Marshall Fire, including Via Mobility Services, at their “Show Some Love with Centennial Peaks Hospital” event on Valentine’s Day.

Via Mobility Services is a Second Responder for Boulder County

Boulder County is very appreciative of all of the resources that Via provided during the Marshall Fire to help evacuate residents who were unable to transport themselves as well as to help support the ongoing needs for transit services throughout east Boulder County after the fire. For all of the County’s recent disasters, Via has always been there to help with whatever assistance we’ve needed, and we are very thankful for this service they provide to the community as part of the county’s emergency services and in partnership with other agencies and community organizations.

Statement courtesy of Alex Hyde-Wright, Senior Transportation Planner at Boulder County.

Via operates the City of Boulder’s HOP public bus route.

Did you know?

Via operates several transit services, including the City of Boulder’s HOP public bus route and its own Via Paratransit accessible transportation service. Staff from both divisions helped with evacuations.

Do you need resources?

Click here to see a list of resources for people affected by Marshall Fire.

 

 

Entering Marshall Fire in a Via Van

Based out of Via’s Denver facility, Annie Montelione, Lisa Gonzalez, Joe Ortiz, and others helped evacuate people from Centennial Peak Hospital in Louisville to Highlands Behavioral Health in Littleton. The day started normally, driving older adults and people with disabilities to and from doctor’s appointments, grocery stores, and other vital community resources.

Supervisors called drivers back to base when the downslope winds from the mountains started approaching hurricane speeds. Once there, several drivers volunteered to go help evacuate people to safety. In a caravan of accessible vehicles, Via drivers approached the hospital, facing a police blockade on Highway 36. Police quickly let the vans through after telling them that Via was there to help.

Beyond the blockade, drivers passed medians and tumbleweeds on fire. Every time the wind blew, huge flames billowed around their vehicles.

As they pulled into the hospital parking lot, the area was surrounded by rolling flames and smoke.

Montelione and Ortiz filled their vehicles with evacuees – many of whom rushed to evacuate without socks or shoes – and they were on their way to safety in Littleton.

“It’s not every day you get to drive into danger,” Gonzalez shares, “at the same time, it’s part of our mission…I’m glad I was able to do my part.”

Montelione, who grew up in Long Island said, “I would have done that for anyone. I was just being me.”

Volunteer Fire Chief and HOP Supervisor on Via’s Response

Bret Gibson, a Via HOP Supervisor and Volunteer Fire Chief at Four Mile Fire Protection District, shares a unique perspective on the fire and Via’s evacuation efforts.

Based on his experience, Gibson anticipated the extreme winds that day would likely make the fires uncontrollable. He spoke with Via’s Operations Specialists to prepare them for a possible evacuation situation since Via is a Second Responder for Boulder County.

Gibson headed to Four Mile Fire Protection District as the North Fork Fire started growing, and by the time he traveled those nine miles from Via’s headquarters in Boulder, Marshall Fire had started.

Considering the strong winds, Gibson called in additional staff to help prepare the District’s fire response. He directed two fire trucks to North Fork Fire, which were canceled because of reasonable fire control, and redirected them to Marshall Fire, which was starting to pick up.

Firefighters positioned one truck at the head of the fire to help law enforcement protect escape routes. They also helped police knock on doors and get people to evacuate.

The second crew of firefighters positioned their truck at the heel, or rear, of the fire and then helped put out small, structure-threatening fires on decks, fences, trees, and other things. Firefighters continually check on houses as they work to contain the fire and follow the fire’s heel as it moves forward.

It was a long 24 hours before Gibson returned to the District base to continue monitoring the fire and relevant resources. At this point, he checked in with the City of Boulder and Via and learned about Via’s efforts to evacuate people.

Gibson’s fellow firefighters know of his role with Via and often comment on his “little white buses.” But on that day, they saw the Via caravans going into the danger area to get people out. That day, in their eyes, Via’s buses became the “little engines that could.”

As Fire Chief Gibson said, “Instead of going home, you help the community.”

That’s what we do.



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