The Fire Next Door
Over 11 days last September, 169 homes burned across 6,200 acres outside Boulder. Damages totaled more than $210 million, making the Fourmile fire the costliest in Colorado's history. For Rod Moraga, the Minniear family, Chris and Brian Finn, Dennis Crawford — and hundreds like them — their lives would never be the same.
This article was a finalist for a 2012 City and Regional Magazine Award in the feature category. It also was part of Robert Sanchez's finalist portfolio for CRMA's writer-of-the-year.
September 6, 2010, 10 a.m. Emerson Gulch Road
Rodrigo Moraga fumbled with the iPhone in his pants pocket as he reached the top of the hillside and saw the fire for the first time. His portable radio crackled as a gray column of smoke rose from the burning ponderosa pines that covered the land in front of him—an ethereal lighthouse for the hundreds of firefighters who would soon descend upon Fourmile Canyon, five miles west of Boulder. Rod, a firefighter with the local volunteer fire department, freed the phone from his pocket and held it in front of his face. It was just him and the flames. He took photos and video. After 25 years in the fire business, Rod thought he could handle this one.
He had woken up early that Monday morning—Labor Day—and spent a few hours working on an edge of his hot tub that a bear had torn open a couple of months earlier. His wife, Shari, cleared weeds from the wildflower garden outside their 2,000-square-foot home, which was tucked at the foot of a rocky hill at the bottom of Logan Mill Road, west of the canyon’s face. The couple’s four-year-old son, Joaquin, played out front with a friend, darting between two magnificent spruce trees. Rod and Shari were both in their mid-40s and had lived here together for more than a decade. Shari considered their five-acre property a slice of heaven, with a deck off the side and the hot tub from which she could sit at night and look at the stars and the endless sky. Rod liked that he could take a leak outside and no one could see.
As Rod worked on the hot tub, his emergency pager buzzed. He studied the text and thought he recognized the address: 100 Emerson Gulch Road. He walked to the garage and turned on his emergency radio. Rod recognized the call number—4672—and the voice on the other end. It belonged to another volunteer firefighter, an old-timer named George Fairer.
I have a fully involved fire, Fairer said. Trees torching. Base of Emerson Gulch. Get Gold Hill Fire up now.
Rod got some of the fire gear stored in his Toyota SUV. He shook off his khaki cargo shorts and dropped his T-shirt onto the floor, replacing them with fireproof pants and a long-sleeve shirt. He found his boots, his phone, and keys to the SUV. He left his wallet behind.
“Is everything OK?” Shari asked from the garden.
“Small fire,” Rod told his wife as he reached his vehicle. “I’ll be back in an hour.”
10:15 a.m. Wild Turkey Trail
Lex Minniear was watering his mother’s apple trees at the end of Wild Turkey Trail when the nine-year-old spotted smoke rising above the walls of Fourmile Canyon. He ran inside to find his parents and left the front door open. His mother, Karen, had just loaded a coffee mug into the dishwasher. She sniffed the air. “Is that smoke?” she called out.
Karen didn’t hesitate. She dialed 911, and found her husband, Pat, in the couple’s office near the back of their house. “There’s a fire in the 7100 block of Fourmile Canyon,” Karen told him.
Pat thought for a second. “That’s not too far away.”
They’d met in a Breckenridge bar 13 years earlier, when Pat made an emergency stop because his motorcycle had caught fire. He was a mop-topped kid from Oregon working as a commercial photographer; she was a not-so-Southern-belle from Georgia who liked to hike and get her hands dirty. That night, he asked to walk her home. They talked for three hours; he knew he wanted to marry her. She loved his long hair. He liked her feisty spirit. When Karen moved home to Atlanta a few months later to work at the Merchandise Mart, she immediately realized she’d made a mistake. She drove back to Colorado with $50 in her pocket and told Pat they were meant to be together. He’d been thinking the same thing.
Pat was raised by his mother and her parents in downtown Detroit where he fished, rode bikes, and swam competitively. When his grandfather was out of the house, Pat would sometimes go into the man’s bedroom and search through a drawer that contained fossils, coins, and an old pocket watch. The watch was his favorite—brass with a moon face and delicate, scalloped hands that looked like bronzed silk behind thick glass. At the end of the watch’s chain hung a miniature baseball. As he went through that drawer, Pat liked to pretend he was on a treasure hunt.
Shortly after Pat turned 11, his grandfather died. By Pat’s 15th birthday, his mother and his grandmother were gone, too. The watch was all that remained of his family. Pat took it with him when his cousin became his legal guardian in 1982—first to Ypsilanti, Michigan, then to Portland, Oregon. Pat went to college at the University of Oregon in Eugene then moved to Colorado, framing houses and hustling pool to pay for gas and food along the way. When he found Fourmile Canyon in 1990, he scraped together money to buy a small house. He put his grandfather’s watch in a dresser drawer.
Pat walked outside. From the view atop his flagstone patio, he could see the smoke was quickly turning from white to gray to black. The plume was a couple of miles away. Heavy wind was pushing it in his direction. Pat looked toward the sky. White ash began falling like snow.
Karen joined him, dressed in a pink tank top and capri jeans. The pair stared at the smoke. The fire was inching toward them, chewing up the canyon wall and spreading at a steady pace. Spot fires were igniting across Fourmile Canyon Drive—part of which is known locally as Wall Street—the main passage through the canyon, a road popular with local cyclists. Smoke drifted down the hillside and over the Minniears’ house, covering the couple in a hazy blanket. Karen turned toward Pat. “We need to leave,” she said.