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.

September 2011

12 p.m. Main Street, Gold Hill

Brian Finn stripped family photos off the walls inside the Gold Hill Inn and removed the painting of the topless woman from behind the bar. The pictures had hung in his family’s restaurant for so long that when he took them down, the wood looked like windows on the otherwise dark logs.

Brian moved from one area of the 86-year-old building to the other, 3,000 square feet of dining room and kitchen and bar, then he stepped outside. Brian and his 55-year-old brother Chris had spent the morning setting up the annual Labor Day bash: three bands, 200 pounds of fresh-caught catfish, 500 people, and enough beer to keep the town in a stupor for the week. But now there was a fire somewhere in Fourmile Canyon, and the brothers were wondering if anyone would show up.

Brian, 51, hopped atop a wooden picnic table and looked toward the unnamed hill that loomed above the town—a pine tree–covered swath of countryside that broke at a 45-degree angle from the south border of the 151-year-old former gold-mining village. The American flag out front looked like it was starched straight off the flagpole. Having lived here almost his entire life, Brian had rarely felt this mix of wind and heat.

Chris was already busy organizing firefighters elsewhere outside town. As chief of Gold Hill’s volunteer fire department, he’d sent five of his firefighters down to Fourmile Canyon almost two hours earlier. Now, with less than half his department left behind, he didn’t want to consider that his own town might be in jeopardy.

On its best day, Gold Hill was a tinderbox. The 122-year-old general store looked like nothing more than clapboard slapped to a facade; the 128-year-old schoolhouse up the road was an all-wood building crammed onto a plot of land surrounded by a thicket of lodgepole and ponderosa pines. Aging wooden structures and shingled shacks were packed into a high-altitude, football field–size bowl along the far side of a rugged loop that connected the town to Fourmile Canyon and to Sunshine Canyon on the north. Strips of steep dirt road in all directions linked Gold Hill to the rest of Boulder County.

Gold Hill was what the Finn brothers knew. Their parents moved there in 1959, opened the inn three years later and started selling their version of mountain fine dining—a six-course meal served on uneven wooden tables. On nights in the fall, their parents would stoke the two eight-foot fireplaces at each end of the massive cabin. A jug band would play; strains from a washtub bass would lull the boys as they fell asleep in the lodge next door.

Brian and Chris took over the place when their parents moved from town a couple of decades earlier. The boys said they’d never change what their parents had started, and they didn’t. Both parents had since died, but there was still a six-course meal; the painting of the topless woman was behind the bar; the fires remained stoked in the fall. The restaurant was as much a part of their family as any person.

A cloud of smoke billowed behind the hill as Brian continued to study the sky. Spot fires were igniting everywhere inside Fourmile. Flames were moving off the canyon wall. Just outside of Gold Hill, houses were already burning to the ground.

1 p.m. Logan Mill Road

Dennis Crawford stood in the middle of Logan Mill Road with his neighbors and watched the fire exploding across the canyon. The wall of flames had spread several hundred feet in the past hour, finally reaching the ridge and igniting it in a line of brilliant orange. He could hear cars coming toward him in the haze, folks laying on their horns as they drove to safety.

Dennis ran toward his house, a two-story custom he’d built into the hillside 25 years earlier. He moved from room to room, taking photographs of his Native American paintings, the mounted elk skull he got on his 50th birthday, and the 10-foot cactus in the family room. Every inch of the house was a memory to him. Next to his 28-year-old daughter, Danice, the home had been Dennis’ life. And now he wanted to remember it, just in case.

The home was 3,200 square feet of wood and concrete, a mostly open floor plan built off a mining cabin that Dennis and his brother bought in the early 1970s, before Dennis went to the University of Colorado Boulder. Dennis never imagined settling anywhere other than Logan Mill, where he’d lived since he was five.

After he graduated from CU, Dennis’ partner, Margaret, moved into the cabin with him. He expanded it by blowing away part of the hillside with dynamite that he’d found in an abandoned gold mine. The frequent explosions aggravated Dennis’ neighbor, Don Witte, a self-employed machinist and computer programmer, and a former Peace Corps volunteer with a physics degree from CU. Don had built a geodesic dome across the street near the corner of Logan Mill Road and Wild Turkey Trail in 1965, then spent more than a decade on at least four other buildings across his 22-acre property. The dynamite blasts at Dennis’ place were unsettling, and Don complained. Dennis ignored him. It took more than a year to build the addition on Dennis’ home; his friends installed cherry-stained pine on the ceiling, a reading nook above the bed in his daughter’s room upstairs, a wall of windows overlooking a creek in Sunbeam Gulch down the hill. Dennis and Margaret had frequent visitors and parties. Don didn’t like that the couple’s friends parked along the road. Dennis built an outdoor basketball court up the hill from his house. Don was concerned that it was too close to his property.

Dennis created a successful business, Marisol Imports, with Margaret and opened a store in downtown Boulder. Then he watched his daughter grow up and Margaret move out. He planted poppies in a garden off his back patio and they bloomed every spring. He built a retaining wall using massive moss boulders he’d found strewn across his property. Don couldn’t believe that many rocks were on one piece of land. He called the authorities and reported Dennis. The cops came and went, like they usually did. More than two decades after moving in, Dennis figured that Don had called the sheriff at least 35 times. Dennis wished Don would chill out. Don wished Dennis would move.

With the fire burning in the distance, residents were considering whether they should evacuate Logan Mill Road. Some wanted to wait until the last possible moment—to save anything they could drag to their vehicles. Others thought the fire would change course. But the evacuation order had come, and Don wasn’t going to wait around. The 73-year-old grabbed two cellos, two violins, a viola, a bassoon, his dog, Rocket, and his cat, Critter, and loaded them into his car. He left for a friend’s house 20 miles away in Lafayette.

Dennis couldn’t leave. One of his greatest childhood memories was watching his father put out fires in the old dump off Logan Mill, clomping around ankle-high flames in a pair of cowboy boots. With those fires came familiarity, and with that familiarity came the sense that Dennis could fight this thing.

He filled his sink with water. The power was sure to go out and the pump down by the creek wouldn’t work. He took ice from the freezer and filled a cooler, then pulled salmon fillets from the refrigerator. He’d caught the fish on a trip to Alaska the previous week. He went back outside, got in his pickup truck and pulled onto the dirt road. He parked the truck—now a getaway vehicle—in a flat area just off Fourmile Canyon Drive.

He called Margaret. “I’m staying here. Tell Danice that I’ll be OK.” Dennis grabbed a shovel and went back up his driveway. He stopped when he reached the top. He was all alone now.