A Look Back: Fourmile Canyon Fire

Courtesy of Richard Johnson

What I remember most was the wind.

The howling, gusting, torrential winds coming off the mountains that day.

Having just moved into our Nederland home six weeks prior, we spent the Labor Day holiday putting up a small shed.

As my husband stood on the ladder, the winds spun the tin roofing material out of his hands. Other than the winds, the day was gorgeous. An azure blue sky with nary a cloud to be seen.

As I tried to hand him another piece of tin, a huge mushroom cloud appeared above the trees.

My heart sank. I knew what a cloud like that meant – wildfire!

And it was close.

I immediately ran into the house, dialing 911.

“Yes, we have reports of wildfire in Emerson Gulch, thanks for calling.”

The recent run of smoky days these past few weeks have brought back memories of Boulder County’s most destructive wildfire.

The Fourmile Canyon Fire started mid-morning on Sept. 6, 2010. By the time it was contained, it had burned down 168 homes and over 6,000 acres. Most of the homes were destroyed in the first 12 hours of the fire. According to a Forest Service report, 83% of the homes destroyed were ignited through ground fire and embers.

Living in the WUI

For me, it was a rude awakening that I was now living in the wildfire zone. But I wasn’t alone. In 2020, more than two million Coloradans live in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) and are vulnerable to wildfires.

For Wildfire Mitigation Specialist, Abby Silver, who lives in Sunshine Canyon, it brought the worst kind of anxiety that a homeowner can endure – the very real fear she might lose her home to a wildfire.

“What had been a relaxing day turned into chaos. I saw the giant cloud and shortly after, we lost power. We were scrambling to find our old princess corded phone since our cordless phone no longer worked. Because we plugged that in, we did get the reverse 911 call.

Fortunately, we started gathering things right away and we had some time before having to evacuate. We didn’t have a go bag, so in the end I didn’t have enough clothes. I wish I’d thought to bring the laundry hamper” Abby said.

As a new resident to the foothills, losing power was a rude awakening to me.  But in fact, it is commonplace for the power to be shut off during a wildfire. Power lines can be a grave threat to firefighters.

Up in Nederland, the lack of power meant no internet, which I found frustrating in its own right. I didn’t know what was going on. Did we need to be thinking about evacuating? Which direction was the fire moving? We didn’t get a phone call. But I’d heard stories of people waiting too long to get the call and then could’t get out. I couldn’t sleep that night worrying about the fire.

As it turned out, those horrific winds that were gusting at our house were wreaking havoc with the fire. Gusts greater than 40 miles per hour caused the fire to grow at a rapid rate in the first 12 hours, reaching 3,000 acres within two hours.  The winds also meant that most aircraft that drop slurry, a key tool in fighting the fire, couldn’t fly that day.

Firefighters spent most of that time trying to evacuate people. Due to their efforts and Boulder County’s Office of Emergency Management, no lives were lost.

Lessons Learned

Abby continued with her story.

“Before we left, we shut all the windows, latched them and got in our cars and left. We were lucky that some friends called us immediately and offered to let us stay with them. We ended up being evacuated for two long weeks.

When we finally returned, I saw the fire had passed right by our house. Fortunately, we had a noncombustible barrier around our home that I had weeded just the day before we evacuated. Even though the grasses burned around our home, the ground fire stopped at the gravel barrier” said Abby.

Shutting and locking your windows is very important when evacuating. Windows that are latched keep embers from getting in your home and limit smoke damage to the inside of your home.

I drove Sunshine Canyon shortly after the fire. I’d heard the term, “scorched earth”, but now I was seeing it – singed ground and blackened trees as far as the eye could see. But what really struck me were the piles of ashes north and south of the road with a lone chimney standing.

A stark reminder of the many homes that were lost.

Fortunately, in Nederland we weren’t required to evacuate, but I knew we had dodged a bullet. And it was a serious wake up call that we would need to do a lot of work mitigating around our home.

In the ten years since Fourmile Canyon Fire, more fires have wrought destruction in Colorado. In fact, three subsequent fires in Colorado (High Park, Waldo Canyon and Black Forest) have proved even more damaging. It’s a reminder of how drought and increasingly hot summers bring an ever-greater threat of wildfire to the American West.

But the Fourmile Canyon Fire also raised a significant need to educate homeowners on how to perform mitigation to prevent future wildfire disasters. With the support of the county commissioners and a grant funding through the Department of Natural Resources, the Wildfire Partners program became a reality in 2014. In part, the program rose from the ashes of the Fourmile Canyon Fire.

Much like the conditions that year, this summer has been hot and dry. September often brings gusty, down-sloping winds along with changing weather conditions. Despite cooler temperatures, vegetation has dried out from the summer heat and can remain flammable until spring.

It’s a good reminder that though the aspen trees may be turning, wildfire season is not over yet.

11 replies added

  1. Jim September 2, 2020 Reply

    The ironic part about the Four Mile fire is that it was started by a volunteer fireman burning slash during a fire ban. He was never charged.

    • Leslie Brodhead September 2, 2020 Reply

      In a recent conversation with a firefigher, they said 80% of fires started on the Front Range are human-caused. A good reminder to all of us that we need to be mindful of wildfire conditions at all times.

  2. Henry Eaton September 2, 2020 Reply

    I have been mitigating in lower Sunshine for 25 years now, and have cut approximately 1700 trees. I burn slash all winter and use a wood burning fireplace daily. But I have produced dozens of wood piles that are not assessable for removal. Any suggestions.

    • Leslie Brodhead September 2, 2020 Reply

      Henry, thanks for bringing up an important issue of how to dispose of slash in inaccessible areas. What we normally recommend is making sure it is staged outside Zone 2 and burning when conditions permit. We are going to discussing this in our October virtual event and also in our October newsletter.

    • Gretchen Diefenderfer September 4, 2020 Reply

      Apply today to Wildlife Partners for free chipping, but you would have to move the piles so they are accessible

      • Leslie Brodhead September 8, 2020 Reply

        Gretchen,

        Our free chipping program has ended for the season. We hope to offer it again next year!

  3. James Richmond September 3, 2020 Reply

    Wildfire Partners is a really great program. Our insurance company forced us into it when they dropped our HO insurance in Nederland. And dealing with the wildfire mitigation measures was inconvenient, at the time. But in the end, not nearly as inconvenient as losing your home to wildfire. A great learning experience and the right thing to do. Help your local firefighters by making your property defensible in a fire. Sure, its a bit of work and expense, but well worth it, if only for the peace of mind.

    • Leslie Brodhead September 3, 2020 Reply

      Such great comments James! Glad to hear our program has been helpful to you.

  4. Ed September 3, 2020 Reply

    We joined Wildfire partners shortly after it started and got certified soon after. Great for peace of mind, but cannot get complacent. Have to keep trimming,etc.

  5. Ed September 3, 2020 Reply

    We joined Wildfire partners shortly after it started and got certified soon after. Great for peace of mind, but cannot get complacent. Have to keep trimming,etc.

    • Leslie Brodhead September 3, 2020 Reply

      So glad it gave you peace of mind. Yes, wildfire mitigation is never finished!

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