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

10:30 a.m. Wild Turkey Trail

Pat Minniear burst through the front door of his home. He grabbed a plastic bin from a closet and found a box of his old photographs. He dumped the photos and hundreds of negatives into the bin and dragged it to the hallway off the living room. His wife, Karen, had recently framed dozens of family pictures and hung them along the wall in a well-planned collage. She called it the “wall of fame.” Pat grabbed the photos off the wall and tossed them into the bin. He left behind the ones he thought made him look dorky.

Pat ran from the hallway to the master bedroom. He grabbed a 70-year-old photo of his grandfather holding a fly rod and a string of trout. A shock of anxiety pulsed through him. Grandpa’s watch. Pat tore open his dressers and rifled through socks and underwear. He searched his closet. Nothing. Pat wasn’t sure how much time was left. The only way off the property was one-and-a-quarter miles down their narrow, winding dirt trail, which eventually dumped onto Fourmile Canyon Drive. Even the smallest fire could sweep around and cut them off.

Karen closed the windows in her son’s room and started packing. Lex was behind her. “You need to get your backpack,” Karen told him. Karen piled more clothes into a bag and turned for the door. Lex was wearing his red and black and white winter coat. His judo bag was strapped to his back. Karen had meant for him to get his school bag. The boy’s eyes were wider than his mother had ever seen; his arms were locked at his sides. Karen put her hands on Lex’s shoulders. She could feel him shaking. “It’s times like this when you really realize what’s important to you, huh?”

Pat was doing a final run through the house. Family room. Living room. Kitchen. Pat was looking for anything he valued. Maybe the watch is in here? Pat found himself at the roll-top door with a view of the canyon that stretched all the way to Denver International Airport, the part of the house that he loved so much. Lex stood next to his father. Pat unhinged the lock, bent with his knees, and heaved open the door—the whoosh of metal on metal rolling through the rails. The smoke was heavier. Lex gasped. “Mom! Mom! It’s orange!”

Pat grabbed the duffel bags that Karen had dropped at the doorway and shuttled their belongings from the house to his truck. Kate clutched a sock monkey and three soccer trophies. Pat made sure the kids and the animals were in the backseat. He started the engine and pulled out his video camera.

He tried to sound cheerful. “Just in case it burns down, we loved this place the way it was.” His voice dropped. “We love you.” Kate looked down. There were tears in Lex’s eyes.

Karen was alone in her Subaru. Pat yelled from the truck. “Karen, come on! We’ve got to go!”

4 p.m. Logan Mill Road

Rod Moraga raced up and down remote dirt roads in his SUV. After fleeing George Fairer’s property more than five hours earlier, he’d been driving across the canyon all afternoon, radioing in new fires on the hills and watching flames force crews to back down. Fire continued exploding up and over the canyon’s face and across the road up to Wild Turkey Trail, and beyond that, to Logan Mill Road, where Rod and his family lived at the intersection of Logan Mill and Fourmile Canyon Drive.

Rod turned onto Logan Mill and immediately saw a column of flames to his right. It was moving toward his property. Rod had already made it to his house once, a few hours after his wife and son had evacuated. In her rush, Shari had left almost everything behind. Rod had grabbed his wallet, his wife’s Torah, and candlesticks her grandmother brought to the United States after fleeing Germany during the Holocaust.

Now pulling up the driveway with the items in the backseat of his vehicle, Rod knew he had only a few minutes before his house caught fire. Flames were creeping toward a porch near the front door. Rod froze for a moment and thought about what was going to happen: A man who made his living off fire now was going to lose his home to it.

He’d already rolled his mountain bike into the yard, away from the burning pine trees on the hill above him, and he’d dragged a safe out of the house and set it on the porch, hoping they’d both survive.

Rod couldn’t watch his home burn. He pulled out of the driveway and drove down the canyon toward Boulder. Cellphone service was spotty. He called his wife when he finally reached the city.

“I’m 90 percent sure the house burned down,” he said.

“What do you mean? Did it, or didn’t it?”

“I think it’s gone.”

Shari’s voice was shaking. “Can you go back to make sure?”

4 p.m. Gold Hill

From his perch near the intersection of Gold Run Street and Gold Run Road, on the edge of town, Chris Finn could see another strip of flames outflanking him to the southeast. The fire was destroying homes in an aging subdivision near the town’s historic cemetery. Flames were also reaching into Sunshine Canyon, another former mining encampment dotted with multimillion-dollar homes and 120-year-old cabins. The Sunshine fire chief’s home burned.

In less than six hours, the fire torched roughly five miles of land and had run across the canyon. Now flames were lapping at the edge of town, threatening to bury Gold Hill under a tsunami of heat.

Chris worried that his town would be the next to go. Around 20 fire engines from departments across the state had come into Gold Hill. Even with other crews around to help, the flames were too dangerous, too unpredictable to fight. Chris wasn’t about to ask firefighters to go up the hill.

Three of the town’s four escape routes were choked with fire. At least two planes were waiting at a nearby airport in Jefferson County to drop fire retardant on the canyons, but heavy wind and smoke kept them grounded. In the distance, Chris could hear the whistle of gasses escaping from homes as they burned to the ground. The noise reminded him of a kettle left on a stove. One shriek. Then another. It sounded like a scream for help. Chris thought it sounded like the houses were dying.