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

September 13, 2010, Logan Mill Road

A week later, Don Witte was back on his property. His house off Logan Mill Road was still standing. Pine needles and wild grass around him were burned black. The garage was a charred heap, but his home was there. “I’m a lucky man,” he told his neighbors.

From his driveway across from Don’s place, Dennis Crawford could see thousands of trees along Fourmile Canyon that looked like burned popsicle sticks speared into the ground. Boulders along the canyon wall were visible for the first time in generations, massive mounds of rocky outcroppings painted with ash.

Dennis and his brother walked up to Don’s property and found Don and a friend standing outside. Dennis apologized for not being able to save the garage. Don said it wasn’t a problem. Dennis told Don about the flaming pinecones and the water buckets. Don listened in amazement. Later, neither man could remember who offered his hand first. Certainly they’d shaken hands before, but when?

Up the canyon, on George Fairer’s property, Boulder County detectives and other fire investigators had already examined a fire pit the volunteer firefighter used to burn trash. The pit was warm and smelled of burned plastic. It appeared that one side was slightly curved; the contour was an indication that wind had blown through the ash, uncovering still-smoldering embers that might have touched off fire in the nearby fallen needles, leaves, and twigs. When a firefighter slid a shovel into the ash, it burst into flames on the blade.

Investigators figured out that Fairer had last used the pit on September 2, four days before the fire began. Fairer told investigators that he poured water on the fire and stirred the ashes. He claimed he’d done the same thing the next day. Fairer maintained his innocence to friends and to law enforcement officials, saying he’d gotten approval from the authorities to burn. During the fire’s first few hours, while his own home was burning, Fairer worked with his crewmates and helped evacuate residents. Less than three weeks later, Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett declined to charge Fairer with fourth-degree arson, saying his office couldn’t prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Fairer kept his volunteer post with the Fourmile department.

By September 17, the fire had been completely contained. Winds died down dramatically and smoke cleared, better exposing the burned trees and now-empty lots high on the Fourmile Canyon wall. One-hundred-and-sixty-nine homes had burned across two canyons, covering 6,200 acres and resulting in more than $210 million in damages. While Gold Hill was spared, about 10 homes in the fire district were gone. In Sunshine Canyon, flames torched the historic cemetery, massive blackened holes occupying land where trees had once stood.

September 15, 2010, Wild Turkey Trail

The route along Fourmile Canyon Drive looked as if the fire had barely touched it. Karen Minniear thought it didn’t seem so bad. She knew their house was gone—a neighbor had called a few days earlier to deliver the news—but Karen still thought they could rebuild. The road curved in front of them, winding its way deeper down the canyon, past signs thanking firefighters for saving their cat or their dog or for saving a home. The road climbed and fell. Trees turned from green to brown. The road climbed again and Karen gasped. Splayed before her and Pat were hundreds of acres of black. The route dipped and curved again. More black. She began to cry.

The couple reached Logan Mill Road and made a right up Wild Turkey Trail. They drove up their road, past now-vacant land, driveways leading to nowhere. Karen moaned as if she were sick. Pat pulled out a video camera and panned from left to right. To him, the road looked like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor. To her, it was like a scene out of a Tim Burton movie—the stark contrast of colors, the arresting, hopelessly black landscape freakishly set against the blue sky.

More dirt road. More burned trees. Up their hill and around a bend—and then they were home. The garage was standing on their left, the kids’ wooden play set out back survived, too; the carport on their right was a leaning, melted hunk. The house was gone. The front steps now were overlooking a pit of gray ash—and beyond that, the end of Fourmile Canyon, the plains, the horizon.

Pat handed his wife a white mask to cover her mouth and nose. He eased one over his face. The pair wore hand-me-down jeans, shirts, and boots. Karen put on gloves and lowered herself into the rectangle of ash. She sighed. “Where do we start?” she asked Pat.

Their woodburning stove now was the highest point of the house. Pat walked past it and into what had been their kitchen. The dishwasher was a trapezoid. He pulled it open and found a coffee mug. Karen found a bottle opener, put it in her pocket, and walked off to figure out where the master bedroom might be.

“Here?” she asked Pat.

“No, there.”

She started digging. She could see Pat was digging too, bent over, pawing furiously at the ash. A powdery mist ringed his head. The sight broke Karen’s heart.

In the background, chainsaws whined: A tree-trimming company was tearing through the pine trees; power would need to be restored to the folks who still had homes, and any trees next to the line were considered a hazard. Living and dead pines were being cut. Karen could see a green one going down. She jumped out of the pit and ran to a man holding a chainsaw. “No! No! No!” she yelled.

Pat looked up. He couldn’t hold it in any longer. He followed his wife and he began yelling at the man with the saw—a week of anger and hurt and frustration coming out all at once. His face was red. Karen tried to calm Pat, but he wouldn’t listen. She walked away and went back to the ashes.

She could hear Pat in the distance. “Why do you have to cut the living ones? That’s all we have!” Now a supervisor from the tree company was talking to him. Karen dug where her closet had been. She was tearing up again, elbow-high in soot, groping for anything that would make her husband feel better.

The men from the tree company finally walked away. Pat stood there, alone. For the first time since the fire began, he started to cry. He was shaking, his chest heaving.

He felt a tap on his shoulder. Pat? He turned around and looked at his wife. Her hands were clasped together, as if she were in prayer. When she opened them, Karen was holding his grandfather’s brass watch.

Robert Sanchez, 5280’s senior staff writer, wrote about Parker native Todd Stansfield in the May issue of the magazine. His 5280 article “This Is Ted Johnson’s Brain” was anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing 2010. Email him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at twitter.com/milehighrobert.