Last September, 169 homes burned in Fourmile Canyon outside Boulder during the costliest fire in Colorado’s history. For a handful of residents—and hundreds like them—their lives would never be the same.
This article was a finalist for a 2012 City and Regional Magazine Award in the feature category. It also was part of Robert Sanchez's finalist portfolio for CRMA's writer-of-the-year.
September 6, 2010, 10 a.m. Emerson Gulch Road
Rodrigo Moraga fumbled with the iPhone in his pants pocket as he reached the top of the hillside and saw the fire for the first time. His portable radio crackled as a gray column of smoke rose from the burning ponderosa pines that covered the land in front of him—an ethereal lighthouse for the hundreds of firefighters who would soon descend upon Fourmile Canyon, five miles west of Boulder. Rod, a firefighter with the local volunteer fire department, freed the phone from his pocket and held it in front of his face. It was just him and the flames. He took photos and video. After 25 years in the fire business, Rod thought he could handle this one.
He had woken up early that Monday morning—Labor Day—and spent a few hours working on an edge of his hot tub that a bear had torn open a couple of months earlier. His wife, Shari, cleared weeds from the wildflower garden outside their 2,000-square-foot home, which was tucked at the foot of a rocky hill at the bottom of Logan Mill Road, west of the canyon’s face. The couple’s four-year-old son, Joaquin, played out front with a friend, darting between two magnificent spruce trees. Rod and Shari were both in their mid-40s and had lived here together for more than a decade. Shari considered their five-acre property a slice of heaven, with a deck off the side and the hot tub from which she could sit at night and look at the stars and the endless sky. Rod liked that he could take a leak outside and no one could see.
As Rod worked on the hot tub, his emergency pager buzzed. He studied the text and thought he recognized the address: 100 Emerson Gulch Road. He walked to the garage and turned on his emergency radio. Rod recognized the call number—4672—and the voice on the other end. It belonged to another volunteer firefighter, an old-timer named George Fairer.
I have a fully involved fire, Fairer said. Trees torching. Base of Emerson Gulch. Get Gold Hill Fire up now.
Rod got some of the fire gear stored in his Toyota SUV. He shook off his khaki cargo shorts and dropped his T-shirt onto the floor, replacing them with fireproof pants and a long-sleeve shirt. He found his boots, his phone, and keys to the SUV. He left his wallet behind.
“Is everything OK?” Shari asked from the garden.
“Small fire,” Rod told his wife as he reached his vehicle. “I’ll be back in an hour.”
10:15 a.m. Wild Turkey Trail
Lex Minniear was watering his mother’s apple trees at the end of Wild Turkey Trail when the nine-year-old spotted smoke rising above the walls of Fourmile Canyon. He ran inside to find his parents and left the front door open. His mother, Karen, had just loaded a coffee mug into the dishwasher. She sniffed the air. “Is that smoke?” she called out.
Karen didn’t hesitate. She dialed 911, and found her husband, Pat, in the couple’s office near the back of their house. “There’s a fire in the 7100 block of Fourmile Canyon,” Karen told him.
Pat thought for a second. “That’s not too far away.”
They’d met in a Breckenridge bar 13 years earlier, when Pat made an emergency stop because his motorcycle had caught fire. He was a mop-topped kid from Oregon working as a commercial photographer; she was a not-so-Southern-belle from Georgia who liked to hike and get her hands dirty. That night, he asked to walk her home. They talked for three hours; he knew he wanted to marry her. She loved his long hair. He liked her feisty spirit. When Karen moved home to Atlanta a few months later to work at the Merchandise Mart, she immediately realized she’d made a mistake. She drove back to Colorado with $50 in her pocket and told Pat they were meant to be together. He’d been thinking the same thing.
Pat was raised by his mother and her parents in downtown Detroit where he fished, rode bikes, and swam competitively. When his grandfather was out of the house, Pat would sometimes go into the man’s bedroom and search through a drawer that contained fossils, coins, and an old pocket watch. The watch was his favorite—brass with a moon face and delicate, scalloped hands that looked like bronzed silk behind thick glass. At the end of the watch’s chain hung a miniature baseball. As he went through that drawer, Pat liked to pretend he was on a treasure hunt.
Shortly after Pat turned 11, his grandfather died. By Pat’s 15th birthday, his mother and his grandmother were gone, too. The watch was all that remained of his family. Pat took it with him when his cousin became his legal guardian in 1982—first to Ypsilanti, Michigan, then to Portland, Oregon. Pat went to college at the University of Oregon in Eugene then moved to Colorado, framing houses and hustling pool to pay for gas and food along the way. When he found Fourmile Canyon in 1990, he scraped together money to buy a small house. He put his grandfather’s watch in a dresser drawer.
Pat walked outside. From the view atop his flagstone patio, he could see the smoke was quickly turning from white to gray to black. The plume was a couple of miles away. Heavy wind was pushing it in his direction. Pat looked toward the sky. White ash began falling like snow.
Karen joined him, dressed in a pink tank top and capri jeans. The pair stared at the smoke. The fire was inching toward them, chewing up the canyon wall and spreading at a steady pace. Spot fires were igniting across Fourmile Canyon Drive—part of which is known locally as Wall Street—the main passage through the canyon, a road popular with local cyclists. Smoke drifted down the hillside and over the Minniears’ house, covering the couple in a hazy blanket. Karen turned toward Pat. “We need to leave,” she said.
12 p.m. Main Street, Gold Hill
Brian Finn stripped family photos off the walls inside the Gold Hill Inn and removed the painting of the topless woman from behind the bar. The pictures had hung in his family’s restaurant for so long that when he took them down, the wood looked like windows on the otherwise dark logs.
Brian moved from one area of the 86-year-old building to the other, 3,000 square feet of dining room and kitchen and bar, then he stepped outside. Brian and his 55-year-old brother Chris had spent the morning setting up the annual Labor Day bash: three bands, 200 pounds of fresh-caught catfish, 500 people, and enough beer to keep the town in a stupor for the week. But now there was a fire somewhere in Fourmile Canyon, and the brothers were wondering if anyone would show up.
Brian, 51, hopped atop a wooden picnic table and looked toward the unnamed hill that loomed above the town—a pine tree–covered swath of countryside that broke at a 45-degree angle from the south border of the 151-year-old former gold-mining village. The American flag out front looked like it was starched straight off the flagpole. Having lived here almost his entire life, Brian had rarely felt this mix of wind and heat.
Chris was already busy organizing firefighters elsewhere outside town. As chief of Gold Hill’s volunteer fire department, he’d sent five of his firefighters down to Fourmile Canyon almost two hours earlier. Now, with less than half his department left behind, he didn’t want to consider that his own town might be in jeopardy.
On its best day, Gold Hill was a tinderbox. The 122-year-old general store looked like nothing more than clapboard slapped to a facade; the 128-year-old schoolhouse up the road was an all-wood building crammed onto a plot of land surrounded by a thicket of lodgepole and ponderosa pines. Aging wooden structures and shingled shacks were packed into a high-altitude, football field–size bowl along the far side of a rugged loop that connected the town to Fourmile Canyon and to Sunshine Canyon on the north. Strips of steep dirt road in all directions linked Gold Hill to the rest of Boulder County.
Gold Hill was what the Finn brothers knew. Their parents moved there in 1959, opened the inn three years later and started selling their version of mountain fine dining—a six-course meal served on uneven wooden tables. On nights in the fall, their parents would stoke the two eight-foot fireplaces at each end of the massive cabin. A jug band would play; strains from a washtub bass would lull the boys as they fell asleep in the lodge next door.
Brian and Chris took over the place when their parents moved from town a couple of decades earlier. The boys said they’d never change what their parents had started, and they didn’t. Both parents had since died, but there was still a six-course meal; the painting of the topless woman was behind the bar; the fires remained stoked in the fall. The restaurant was as much a part of their family as any person.
A cloud of smoke billowed behind the hill as Brian continued to study the sky. Spot fires were igniting everywhere inside Fourmile. Flames were moving off the canyon wall. Just outside of Gold Hill, houses were already burning to the ground.
1 p.m. Logan Mill Road
Dennis Crawford stood in the middle of Logan Mill Road with his neighbors and watched the fire exploding across the canyon. The wall of flames had spread several hundred feet in the past hour, finally reaching the ridge and igniting it in a line of brilliant orange. He could hear cars coming toward him in the haze, folks laying on their horns as they drove to safety.
Dennis ran toward his house, a two-story custom he’d built into the hillside 25 years earlier. He moved from room to room, taking photographs of his Native American paintings, the mounted elk skull he got on his 50th birthday, and the 10-foot cactus in the family room. Every inch of the house was a memory to him. Next to his 28-year-old daughter, Danice, the home had been Dennis’ life. And now he wanted to remember it, just in case.
The home was 3,200 square feet of wood and concrete, a mostly open floor plan built off a mining cabin that Dennis and his brother bought in the early 1970s, before Dennis went to the University of Colorado Boulder. Dennis never imagined settling anywhere other than Logan Mill, where he’d lived since he was five.
After he graduated from CU, Dennis’ partner, Margaret, moved into the cabin with him. He expanded it by blowing away part of the hillside with dynamite that he’d found in an abandoned gold mine. The frequent explosions aggravated Dennis’ neighbor, Don Witte, a self-employed machinist and computer programmer, and a former Peace Corps volunteer with a physics degree from CU. Don had built a geodesic dome across the street near the corner of Logan Mill Road and Wild Turkey Trail in 1965, then spent more than a decade on at least four other buildings across his 22-acre property. The dynamite blasts at Dennis’ place were unsettling, and Don complained. Dennis ignored him. It took more than a year to build the addition on Dennis’ home; his friends installed cherry-stained pine on the ceiling, a reading nook above the bed in his daughter’s room upstairs, a wall of windows overlooking a creek in Sunbeam Gulch down the hill. Dennis and Margaret had frequent visitors and parties. Don didn’t like that the couple’s friends parked along the road. Dennis built an outdoor basketball court up the hill from his house. Don was concerned that it was too close to his property.
Dennis created a successful business, Marisol Imports, with Margaret and opened a store in downtown Boulder. Then he watched his daughter grow up and Margaret move out. He planted poppies in a garden off his back patio and they bloomed every spring. He built a retaining wall using massive moss boulders he’d found strewn across his property. Don couldn’t believe that many rocks were on one piece of land. He called the authorities and reported Dennis. The cops came and went, like they usually did. More than two decades after moving in, Dennis figured that Don had called the sheriff at least 35 times. Dennis wished Don would chill out. Don wished Dennis would move.
With the fire burning in the distance, residents were considering whether they should evacuate Logan Mill Road. Some wanted to wait until the last possible moment—to save anything they could drag to their vehicles. Others thought the fire would change course. But the evacuation order had come, and Don wasn’t going to wait around. The 73-year-old grabbed two cellos, two violins, a viola, a bassoon, his dog, Rocket, and his cat, Critter, and loaded them into his car. He left for a friend’s house 20 miles away in Lafayette.
Dennis couldn’t leave. One of his greatest childhood memories was watching his father put out fires in the old dump off Logan Mill, clomping around ankle-high flames in a pair of cowboy boots. With those fires came familiarity, and with that familiarity came the sense that Dennis could fight this thing.
He filled his sink with water. The power was sure to go out and the pump down by the creek wouldn’t work. He took ice from the freezer and filled a cooler, then pulled salmon fillets from the refrigerator. He’d caught the fish on a trip to Alaska the previous week. He went back outside, got in his pickup truck and pulled onto the dirt road. He parked the truck—now a getaway vehicle—in a flat area just off Fourmile Canyon Drive.
He called Margaret. “I’m staying here. Tell Danice that I’ll be OK.” Dennis grabbed a shovel and went back up his driveway. He stopped when he reached the top. He was all alone now.
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!”
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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@example.com or find him on Twitter at twitter.com/milehighrobert.