Boulder fire made a big show but caused little damage
Rocky Mountain News
Boulder, CO Colorado
BOULDER, Colorado ” A foothills wildfire that turned life in Boulder upside-down fizzled out Thursday as hundreds of evacuees returned home and firefighters tamped down flare-ups amid dwindling winds.
In the end, the two-day fire burned two homes and three barns, but its spectacular flames and prominent location along the hills just north of Boulder made it the talk of the town, with camera-armed gawkers rushing to behold the strange orange glow that briefly appeared to threaten more of the community.
Dubbed the Olde Stage Fire, it was nowhere near as damaging as more infamous Boulder-area fires, including the Black Tiger fire of 1989, which destroyed 44 structures and the identically named Olde Stage fire of 1990, which destroyed more than 10 homes.
But for a few hours, this blaze lit up the sky ” a force of nature fueled by high-speed Chinook winds that shoved flames across grasslands, frightened residents and led to reverse 911 calls to more than 11,500 homes.
“Firefighters made a heroic effort,” said Boulder County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Phil West. He credited the work of dozens who worked through Wednesday night to conduct back burns.
By Thursday, the process went into reverse. Some 150 firefighters brought the fire under control, helped by far lighter winds in the morning. Winds did pick up as the day wore on, keeping firefighters busy ensuring the blaze didn’t flare-up again. In all, about 25 agencies responded to the fires, which burned 1,400 acres.
Authorities allowed people back into their homes, neighborhood by neighborhood, and firefighters expected all areas reopened by nightfall. Despite widespread evacuation orders, it appeared many people never heeded the call, with only an estimated 1,300 to 1,400 leaving their homes.
“I’m shaking, and I’m so grateful we have our homes and our pets,” said Darlene Steiner, a resident of Lake Valley Estates neighborhood north of Boulder as she inspected her home following the overnight evacuation.
The fire began as two distinct fires Wednesday. The fire near Neva Road and 45th was likely caused by downed power lines, West said, but the Old Stage Road fire’s cause was still not clear late Thursday afternoon. West said he couldn’t rule out the possibility that a person might have caused that blaze.
Though a freak curiosity for most, the fire still meant tragedy for some. Though no one was killed, 78-year-old Bobra Goldsmith had nothing but three large smokestacks rising from a stone fireplace remaining of her once beautiful Neva Road home.
Goldsmith, a llama rancher whose animals escaped harm, had seen a futile effort Wednesday to stop a gust-driven fire from consuming her home. She said nearly 80 years of memories were lost to the flames.
“My mother was an artist,” she said. “The house was filled with her work. I can’t tell you what I’ve lost.”
One retired couple spent the night watching their home from a distance, through binoculars, eying its fate as they tried ” and failed ” to sleep in their car.
“It would be really nice if we could go home,” Candace Anders said at mid-day, before they were allowed back into the foothills home. Candace and husband Fred spent the night moving the car to various places, viewing their home from various vantage points to make sure it was still there.
The fire even forced the evacuation of Michael Brown, the Boulder County resident and infamous former director of FEMA, who took the brunt of criticism for the federal government’s slow reaction to Hurricane Katrina. Brown, now a consultant, knew what to do when told to evacuate.
“To me, it was all automatic,” Brown said. “They said it was mandatory … I just grabbed my dogs and said ‘Let’s go.’ “
He watched firefighters battle the blaze about a half-mile from his home.
Dozens of families stayed overnight at the Courtyard by Marriot hotel in Longmont for a reduced fee. The hotel welcomed animals and waived pet fees, offered free dinner and breakfast and sent people away with care packages.
At about 8:30 a.m., several families ” who munched on eggs, bacon, muffins and cereal and tried to keep dogs from snagging sausage off the table ” celebrated news that they could return to undamaged homes.
“That’s our next stop,” said Tamara Doolittle, 47.
First, though, she said she and her husband might swing past an office-supply floor to pick up a tub to organize all their important papers ” in case there’s a next time.
The fire scene, with its chaotic mix of firefighters, evacuees and bright-orange hillsides Wednesday night, had calmed considerably by Thursday evening.
Nelson Renouf sat on the water tender, dangling his legs and taking a break from sawing lumber on the blackened hillside.
His Big Elk Fire Department crew of seven had been on the hillside for about an hour, chopping debris and trees ” trying to make sure the fire that swept through 1,500 acres of brush and pine didn’t explode again.
But with temperatures dropping and the wind barely a whisper of what it was Wednesday night when gusts were clocked upward of 80 mph, Renouf didn’t seem worried.
“It’s starting to drag,” he said, a smile forming from behind a bushy mustache.
Staff writer Berny Morson and the DailyCamera.com contributed to this report.