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

10:15 a.m. Emerson Gulch Road

Rod Moraga parked his SUV at the corner of Fourmile Canyon Drive and Emerson Gulch Road, a remote, rutted scratch of dirt and rock, set low among the folds of 19th-century gold-mining trails.

As Rod drew closer to 100 Emerson Gulch, the smoke was more visible, gray and white puffs melting into the sky. The fire chief came up behind him.

The burning land was hidden a few dozen yards up a steep hill, making it impossible to troubleshoot from the road. The fire was accessible by a narrow driveway that zigzagged across the property and up a hill. As the first volunteer on the scene, Rod would be in charge of operations. The chief told Rod that he needed to “make contact” with George Fairer, the volunteer firefighter and the property’s owner, “size up” the fire, and report back. The chief would stay behind and coordinate the tangle of incoming firefighters.

After half a lifetime studying fire, Rod had seen plenty. The Chile native had spent much of his life among wildland fires around the West—first in 1988 as a seasonal firefighter in White River National Forest when he was an underclassman out of Rutgers University in New Jersey, then as a ranger for the City of Boulder Open Space. He set out on his own in 1999, starting a wildfire solutions company in Boulder and doing national consulting on fire-behavior analysis. Around the same time, he’d bought a piece of property on Logan Mill Road, met up with Shari, a friend from New Jersey, and joined the Fourmile volunteer department.

Rod hiked the hillside up Fairer’s property, careful to follow a string of rocks because they couldn’t catch fire. As he reached the top of the hill, he saw an RV burning, a collapsing shell of glass and metal. Next to the RV, a small barbecue propane tank was on fire. Trees were burning.

Rod tried to raise the chief on his radio. The wind was too heavy. No one could hear him.

10:30 a.m. Wild Turkey Trail

Karen Minniear called a neighbor. “There’s a fire, and we’re leaving. It looks bad.” Pat got his camera and started shooting video.

A cloud of smoke hung on the hillside, and the fire moved diagonally across the canyon wall. This is going to sweep right over us, Pat thought. Wind gusts whipped the property. Chunks of tree bark flew through the air. Karen was already packing.

They’d bought their house seven years earlier, when it was a work in progress. Pat had given up his photography career and had become a successful contractor. With Karen’s help, he knocked down walls and started to rebuild: new rooms for the kids, an office for Pat, a television room. Pat installed a roll-up garage door with a dozen rectangular windows in the family room so they could watch the white lights in Boulder turn on at night. When it got dark, Karen would step outside and stare at the sky—the full moon would cast a warm glow that covered the trees. It was as if her soul filled up. She felt lucky living here. If Karen and her husband hadn’t created their dream home in these 3,200 square feet, they’d at least dreamed up a pretty nice place to spend their lives together.

Karen grabbed the cat on the sofa. “Get the cat carrier, please,” she asked Lex. The family’s two dogs were huddled on the floor in the family room. She grabbed a couple of gym bags and duffels and was off to her daughter’s bedroom. Karen had just redone Kate’s room in pinks and black and white. She’d made the curtains by hand. A chandelier with faux crystals hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. Karen loaded up winter coats and clothes. Kate grimaced. “I can’t leave my house!” the seven year old yelled. “I can’t leave my room!”

Karen bent down and was face-to-face with her daughter. “Honey, we need to leave together.”

“But I’m too young to die!”