Feature

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

3:30 p.m. Gold Hill

Brian Finn moved his truck in front of the Gold Hill Inn and pointed it toward Lickskillet Road, the last open route out of town. Fire had descended the unnamed hill above town and was so hot that it was blistering paint on one home and melting a water tank outside another.

Two men walked up to Brian. They were friends who lived less than a mile southwest of town. One man was in shock. “My house,” he said. “It blew up.”

The flames were nearing Hill Street on the town’s south end, just a few feet from more homes. Brian could have shot a rifle and hit the fire. He went inside the restaurant with the two men he’d met out back. The inn didn’t look the same: The photos were down; the servers had fled hours ago; the power was out. Brian pulled three bottles from behind the bar and held them in the air. “Who wants to have the last beers at the Gold Hill Inn?”

The men at the bar finished their drinks and one of them pointed to the 1908, polished-nickel cash register behind Brian. His mother had bought it at a yard sale in Alamosa almost five decades earlier. “We should get that,” the man suggested. It took all three of them to lift it off the counter.

The restaurant door swung open, and the men put the register in the back of a truck. Brian went back to the inn and shut the door. He stood on the wooden porch and thought about his parents. He pressed his hands against the building and kissed it good-bye.

10:20 a.m. Emerson Gulch Road

Rod Moraga found George Fairer on one side of his home, a few dozen yards from the burning canyon’s face.

A retired geologist, Fairer had been a member of the Fourmile volunteer fire department for at least two decades. He had a grandfatherly look—gray hair, a trimmed white beard—and at 71 had earned the friendship of most of the crew. The district fire chief considered Fairer a “very good” firefighter but had reservations about the man’s decision-making during the initial stages of an emergency, according to a report from the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. Fairer sometimes got too excited in those first moments and focused on minutiae rather than the bigger picture.

Now Fairer was dressed in a heavy fire coat, spraying a four-foot-by-four-foot ground fire with his garden hose. The hose was too short. Fairer shook it violently, but the water wasn’t doing anything. He’d become oblivious to the fire growing around him. The flames were quickly getting out of control. Spot fires were igniting in multiple places on Fairer’s property, but his house blocked his view. The canyon wall was turning orange.

Rod knew this as a textbook “watch-out situation,” in which flames would materialize in an instant, everywhere, and come together quickly to overrun the land. Rod could feel it happening now.

Fourmile’s Engine 1 lumbered up the trail and crawled to a stop on the driveway. The firefighter found Rod and Fairer near the house. The woman had a sick look on her face.

“There’s no water,” she yelled to Rod.

“What?” Rod yelled back. There’s no water in the engine? He must have misunderstood her.

“There’s no water.”

“What the fuck?” Rod yelled.

Rod ordered the woman back to the truck. She needed to get off Fairer’s driveway or risk losing the engine. There wasn’t room for her to turn around, so she threw Engine 1 into reverse and focused on the left rear tire. She inched down the dirt drive, oblivious to the thigh-high fire and to the RV burning next to her.

Fires surrounded the two men. “We gotta get out of here, George!” Rod yelled.

“No!”

Rod’s voice was angry.

“George, we’ve got to go! Drop the hose!”

“No! I can do it!”

“You can’t fight this! You know you can’t!”

Rod grabbed Fairer’s shoulder and pulled him to the edge of the property, where the land sloped toward the road. They could see fire building below them.

Rod looked into Fairer’s blue eyes.

“George, do you see that?” Rod yelled. “That is going to kill us!”

Pages