As wildfires ravaged Colorado in June 2012, a small group of Colorado Springs designers, marketers and Web developers wanted to help—especially as the Waldo Canyon Fire stormed into their hometown. Their idea was to create some cool T-shirts, sell them online and donate the proceeds. None of the group imagined that their Wild Fire Tees would spread like, well, wildfire.

We caught up with Tucker Wannamaker, chief marketer of Magneti Marketing, and Austin Buck, design flight officer of CoPilot Creative, to get the inside story of the surprise philanthropic success.

5280: What were your initial expectations?

Austin Buck: A couple hundred shirts and we could donate about $1,500, which was way more than I was going to be able to donate personally. It was also kind of an excuse to get together, print shirts on a Saturday, drink some beers, and harness the local design community.

5280: What was the moment you realized this was way bigger than expected?

Tucker Wannamaker: By the end of the second day, we’d sold $160,000 worth of T-shirts.

AB: We sold 12,000 shirts in the first three days.

5280: And those were all preorders that you needed to create?

AB: Yeah, there was a guy in Pueblo who was onboard to help. He does custom screen-printing by hand for a lot of bands. I remember him calling in the first hour and saying, “Dude, who’s printing? ‘Cause I can’t handle that many.”

TW: We’re all designers and marketers. We’d never started a T-shirt company before, so we didn’t have any idea how to set up a system for that. We do our jobs, which apparently we did pretty well. But my job that week became finding a fulfillment house that could print, package, and ship an amazing amount of orders immediately.

5280: How much money did you raise and donate?

TW: Total sales were about $600,000, and we donated almost $300,000 after all the costs—legal, shipping, printing, distribution.

5280: Was it a challenge to figure out how to effectively donate that much money?

TW: The Pikes Peak Community Foundation was a phenomenal help to us in knowing how to maximize our dollars—how and where to send money and how to get money to specific projects.

AB: And where to get a jumbo check.

5280: Where did you give the money?

TW: It was a statewide effort. Our first donations were to the Red Cross and Care and Share. Most of the emphasis was Colorado Springs, including Colorado Springs Together and to help a local elementary school rebuild its playground that was destroyed. But the Red Cross money was divided to five state chapters, and we gave to NoCo Rebuilding Network for efforts around Fort Collins after the High Park Fire.

5280: Were sales mostly from Colorado?

AB: There were some international and quite a few from around the country, but mostly from Colorado.

TW: We heard from people as far as Ireland and Australia. It was cool to see how many people have some tie to Colorado and how Colorado resonates with so many people.

5280: Do you have any favorite stories?

TW: A gal whose house burned down got a tee that said “Out of the ashes we will rise.” A few months after the fire, she posted a picture of herself in her T-shirt, standing where her house had been. They’d excavated for a new foundation, and you could see the RV where they were living as they rebuilt. It was such a great testament to everyone affected by the fires.

5280: What’s ahead for Wild Fire Tees?

TW: Relief efforts are still going on for victims and the land, plus preparations for possible flooding and more wildfires this summer. We want to be ready to give what we can to those efforts. We’re still selling tees online, and we’ll be selling a one-year anniversary tee exclusively at the June 26 anniversary event at Colorado Springs’ Mountain Shadows Park.

Do Something: Unfortunately, the 2013 fire season has started. Want to help? Check out designs and buy a tee at Read this story about the Fourmile Fire (pictures here) and hear from a survivor. Finally, last summer, when the entire state seemed to be on fire, we put together a list of five ways that you could help.

—Images courtesy of Wild Fire Tees