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

7 p.m. Logan Mill Road

Dennis Crawford lifted his shovel and cut a line in the dirt along the hillside off Logan Mill Road, a couple of hundred feet north of his house. Small fires flared in the waist-high grass around him; winds blew embers off the canyon on his right and from the pine trees directly in front of him. His thighs burned from the work. He’d been on the hillside for nearly five hours, scattering shovels of earth atop the spot fires sparking around him. Left scrape-swish, left scrape-swish. Right scrape-swish, right scrape-swish. Back, scrape, scrape, scrape.

Below Dennis’ position in the grass, Rod Moraga’s house was fully engulfed. Up Wild Turkey Trail, Dennis could hear shattering glass and collapsing steel. It sounded like planes were crashing into the mountains. Dennis was sure his friends Pat and Karen Minniear had lost everything.

Under a layer of smoke, the sky darkened faster than usual. The last bit of daylight pierced the haze; the only steady light was glowing off the canyon wall. Dennis stopped to admire its awe-inspiring beauty. He sank his shovel into the ground. Sweat covered his back and ran into his blue jeans. His rear end stung. He was getting diaper rash. He needed a break.

Dennis put down the shovel, walked through the woods, then another 100 feet down his driveway to his house. The power was out. His home looked lifeless in the dimming light.

Dennis went inside, turned on a gas lantern, and pulled out the salmon he’d stored in his cooler. He turned on the burner on his stove, lit a match, cracked six eggs, and cooked an omelet. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a beer. He popped open the can and stood alone in the shadows of his kitchen.

After finishing his omelet and beer, Dennis put on safety glasses and mismatched leather gloves and went back up his driveway to the tall grass. Left scrape-swish, left scrape-swish. Right scrape-swish, right scrape-swish.

With the ground fire beaten back, Dennis thought he’d be safe for several hours—enough time to get some sleep. The canyon wall was still a mountain of flames, but he couldn’t do anything about that. He returned to his house and climbed the stairs to his bedroom. He figured it must be nearing 1 a.m. He stripped off his sweaty shirt and fell asleep in his jeans.

4:30 p.m. Gold Hill

It was time to evacuate. Chris Finn began lining Main Street with fire trucks. He thought he was looking at his town for the last time.

He led the convoy of fire equipment up the street and then left down Lickskillet Road. The trucks would stop about a mile away and fill up at a creek that ran along Lefthand Canyon Drive. From there, the firefighters would wait until fire swept over Gold Hill, then race back up the road and put out whatever they could before a secondary burn could level the town.

Chris’ brother Brian started his pickup’s engine and looked out the windshield. There must have been 20 people standing on a high point off Main Street. Brian drove 50 feet up the road and stopped. There was no way he could leave. He needed to watch the town burn, needed to be with it at its worst moment. He got out and looked down the empty street. Brian watched the flag outside his restaurant blowing in the wind. It had been straight out all afternoon, but now it was slowly dropping. He stared at it for a few moments, watching it flap lazily.

Brian heard a buzz overhead. It wasn’t the fire; it sounded like a humming engine. A white plane with at least a dozen lights on its wings broke through the smoke—behind it was an orange and white four-propeller bomber. It was happening so fast. Brian’s chest tightened. The bomber swooped a few hundred feet above the burning hillside and banked toward Gold Hill. A spray of reddish-orange mud dropped from its undercarriage—a perfect line of retardant on the fire and on the houses closest to the flames. Then the planes disappeared back into the smoke.

The news broke over Chris’ emergency radio as he waited along the creek. He ordered the firefighters who had filled their tanks back to the town, and he told those who were still filling up to finish loading before heading into Gold Hill. The firefighters rolled up Lickskillet and passed by Brian.

Chris jumped out of his truck and was dumbfounded. The flames had been knocked down mere feet from the edge of town. This might actually work, he thought.

6 p.m. Logan Mill Road / Boulder

Rod Moraga steered his SUV up his driveway and saw the roof on the ground. The house looked like a bonfire, collapsed in the middle, the framework a burning skeleton.

All he could think was that all of his stuff was burning and that he’d never see any of it again. He stood there a few minutes, then took a photo and some video with his phone.

Rod turned out of the driveway and eventually made it to his friend’s house in Boulder, where his family was staying. Shari and Joaquin were out on the front lawn. Rod parked his SUV and Shari started to run toward him. When she reached Rod, she wrapped her hands around her husband’s neck and began kissing his face. Rod held his wife for a moment and then scooped his young son up in his arms. He pulled his boy tightly against his chest and started to cry.

September 7, 2010, 6:25 a.m., Logan Mill Road

Dennis Crawford woke up to the sound of fire crackling across the road and bolted for the window overlooking his poppies. The smoke outside was thicker than the day before. He threw on his boots, put on a long-sleeve shirt, grabbed his shovel, and raced through the kitchen and out the back door. He looked up the driveway as he ran: There were 40-foot flames directly across the road. Charcoal-colored smoke was billowing right in front of him.

In a few seconds, he reached the top of his driveway. The back of Don Witte’s garage was on fire. Dennis climbed the hillside in front of Don’s property and yanked the sleeves of his shirt over his forearms. Ground fires were picking up everywhere, some just inches from Don’s house.

Junked parts were strewn across the property—nuts, bolts, old exercise equipment. Smoke blew darker from the garage. Don’s old computers were burning. Dennis didn’t want to get too close and breathe whatever was in that smoke.

He put himself between the garage and the house on his right. Dennis dug some dirt, flinging it around him and snuffing out patches of flames before they got closer. Spot fires smoldered around him. He rushed to another side of Don’s house. Flaming pinecones rolled down the hill like mini-grenades, igniting dead pine needles. Dennis scraped away underbrush. He tried urinating on the pinecones, but he was too dehydrated. Dennis threw more dirt. More fire. More dirt. More fire. Scrape-swish. Scrape-swish.

Dennis dropped the shovel, grabbed a couple of buckets, ran across the street and continued down the hillside behind his house, past the rock retaining wall, to the creek a few dozen yards below his property. Dennis dunked the buckets into the creek and tried to lift them. Too heavy. He poured some water out, then climbed up the hill back to his house, stumbling over rocks, careful not to spill. He speed-walked back to Don’s place. Dennis struggled for air. He barely stopped before throwing the buckets of water on top of a pocket of flames closest to the house. The fire went out with a hiss and a trail of white smoke.

Dennis raised his arms above his head and let out a victorious scream. Then he ran back down the hill to get more water.