Almost Up in Smoke

Our hearts and prayers go out this morning to the people near our Clinic HQ site in Colorado who lost their homes last night to a wind-fueled monster fire. In fact, that fire came within a few hundred yards of our Clinic and research site. This is that story.

A Crazy Wind Day

I’m on vacation and live in Boulder, Colorado. The winds yesterday, before our impending New Year’s snowstorm were insane. 80-100 mph as they whipped through the canyons near my house. At around 2 pm I began getting texts from clinic staff that there was a fire in the neighboring town. Our clinic closed up early because the power was beginning to go off and on and there were concerns about smoke. Throughout the day my power at home went off and on a dozen times.

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The Fire Advances

By dinnertime, I was watching the local news and saw our Governor’s news conference discussing that at least 500 homes had already burned, which floored me as I had no idea the severity of what was going on. All I knew was that this was a grass fire that began by downed power lines and that the wind was making it tough to fight.

By that time I began getting texts from friends and staff that they were in huge traffic jams trying to get from one place to another because roads were blocked. Then reports from people we knew who had already lost homes. Finally, I saw a local news reporter standing in an intersection that seemed to be close to the clinic. She gave the cross streets, which I Googled and mapped and sure enough, the fire at that point was about 500 yards from our clinic door.

In a normal situation, you wouldn’t be too concerned, as the firefighters would just put it out. However, with winds at that time that were still 30-50 mph, the fire was impossible to control and very dangerous. It had morphed into a gargantuan beast that was taking what it wanted and laughing at the puny water streams meant to control it. Sure enough, the last report from that reporter around 7 pm showed that the beast had jumped the road she was standing by and was careening toward a shopping center near the clinic. In addition, the housing development near our clinic, which had hundreds of homes, was in flames. At the pace the fire was advancing, if the winds stayed high, it would be only about an hour or two before our clinic burned.

What Do You Do?

The routes from Boulder to the clinic in Broomfield were all closed. We were upwind, so my home and family were safe. But at that point, I began trying to plan for what we do if the clinic burned down. Replacing a site that was purpose-built for Interventional Orthobiologics and lab research would be almost impossible. Meaning we have procedure rooms that we wouldn’t find outside of a hospital and a clean room processing lab that doesn’t exist elsewhere in any Colorado hospital or clinic. We also have about a million dollars in various types of research equipment in our lab that also doesn’t exist in one site, even at the University of Colorado. Our place was unique and being able to see hundreds of patients and resuming a dozen research and development projects, even in a month of hard work, would be almost impossible.

Around 7:30 pm, as the news was showing more and more houses burning and how dangerous this raging beast had become, I got a text from a staff member who was at the clinic! She came back for a picture of her Dad, so I asked her to grab a few things. That’s her picture above. The glow in the background is that housing development near the clinic and likely the Safeway shopping center, also close.

I began to plan routes in my head, as she had approached from the east, which was still open, but obviously not being advertised. I couldn’t go North or West, as those routes would be blocked and were actively burning, but I could maybe go far south and take a back road through where the old Rocky Flats plutonium facility used to be. I could then maybe cut through a business park and approach from the east as she had. It was worth a shot.

Watching as the World Burns

My son, his girlfriend, and I hopped in my car and began exploring whether my assumptions were correct. All of the stop and street lights were out, so it was hard to keep your bearings as everything was pitch black. Once we got south of Boulder, the glow to the east and in the direction of the clinic was surreal. It was also a little terrifying to contemplate that we were driving toward that insanity rather than away from it. On the way, as if an omen that was relaying that Nature was taking no prisoners, there was an entire huge semi-tractor trailer turned on its side from the high winds.

Perhaps the craziest thing we saw last night were the spectators. At first, it looked like a huge traffic jam ahead of us. It turned out to be hundreds of cars pulled over on the side of the road in a growing peanut gallery watching the fire. The only thing that came to mind was that these people, whose number kept growing through the night, were here to get a front-row seat and watch as the world burned (see Batman clip above). The fire, like the bandit in the clip, couldn’t be stopped or negotiated with or bought, it was going to continue out of control until the wind stopped and it had burned all it could. These people were jockeying for the best seat the house had to offer.

When we got east of the clinic, the area was abandoned like a war zone. Everything was intact and the roads just west of the clinic were blocked by police. Literally, the police fire line was at the cross street for the clinic. The air was heavy with smoke and the glow and thick billowing smoke just to the west of us showed that the fire was advancing towards us.

What surprised me was that there were two cars in our parking lot. At that point, I didn’t know what I would find inside, as people were in the building. Were these looters? Were they armed? Was I surprising them? Amazingly, this was the cleaning crew! While the city was burning down, this hard-working Hispanic woman and her husband were cleaning our office! She didn’t speak much English, so I told her in Spanish that her life wasn’t worth our clean office (which was likely going to burn soon anyway). I have to say that with all of the insanity of COVID and all of the people who have refused to go back to work because they can stay home, this woman last night restored my faith in the American dream. She wasn’t about to let a city burning down outside keep her from doing her job!

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What Do You Take?

As we all rushed around the clinic, I began to think about what would be impossible to replace, what would be hard to replace, and how much you can carry. First, I took all of the stuff the kids had made me from my office – irreplaceable. I took device prototypes from our research lab and all of the research notebooks that represented all of our lab findings going back to 2005. I then got our lead scientist on the phone and began digging through one of our -80C freezers with my bare hands (not recommended) for the sample boxes that would complete our knee synovial fluid testing project. I tried to budge our liquid nitrogen tank containing about a thousand patient research samples, but that was never going to fit in the back of my Tesla and weighed about 300-500 pounds. I grabbed prototype mouthpieces for our PICL procedure and some equipment that could make it easier to restart the clinic somewhere else.

With a carload of stuff, and with Tesla’s Biodefense mode on (which was actually working to help us breathe at that point), we left. I had a pang that I could maybe have taken more, but at some point, you have to do the math around personal safety and just letting it burn.

The Morning

From the pictures this morning from staff, the clinic still stands. However, about a thousand or so families weren’t so lucky. They lost their homes and apartments. I expect that just a few blocks to the west of our clinic, it looks like a nuclear bomb went off, while to the east, all is business as usual. My heart goes out to everyone who lost a place to live and who also had to decide “What do you take?” I also want to thank all of the first responders who were able to finally get this beast under control.

The upshot? This new years eve is bittersweet for my local community. For those that dodged the bullet, it’s a sigh of relief. For those that lost their homes and businesses, it’s a time to begin the mind-numbing, one foot in front of the other process by which they will rebuild their lives. The fact that all of this is happening in the middle of the Omicron COVID wave makes it all the more difficult. Meaning that many of these people won’t see their homes rebuilt for a long time. In addition, our supply chain shortages will mean that their rebuilding costs will likely be higher than their insurance company is willing to pay, as local building costs have jumped almost 50% in just 18 months. So, if you see any funding sites out there for the victims of this fire, please give generously. In the end, the best news is that we seem to have lost few lives, which is the only thing that can’t be replaced.

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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