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Labor Day in Four Mile Canyon

Third Time in Memory Boulder escapes catastrophe

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, September 08, 2010.

There is nothing emotionally appropriate to say to those who've lost everything - absolutely everything - in the fires still seething in the hills west of Boulder proper, but Boulder nonetheless. "Sorry" sounds both glib and wildly insufficient. All other boilerplate expressions of sadness sound, well, boilerplate and so obvious that to actually say them can seem both condescending and cruel and somewhat pointless, as if offering to participate in small, cliché ridden theater in the face of their trauma . But I cannot help it. I'm so sorry for your unimaginable losses and grateful that our amazingly competent fire teams and sharp citizens avoided what could have been mortal catastrophes within a series of close run horrors, and there are, as yet, no confirmed casualties. But eight are missing, and some of those had refused to evacuate.

It had happened so fast. Apparently propane tanks aboard a recreation vehicle exploded at around 1030 Monday morning in collision and it was on. There was an explosion, and on a day with wind gusts above 50 mph, there was nothing that could be done above what was. Crews were there quick, organization was obvious, and it quickly became apparent they needed to retreat, and a fire truck was almost immediately sacrificed.

Within an hour of the ignition, my apartment building some miles due east on Folsom avenue was covered by a fast moving thread of smoke that widened, as you watched, to cover both horizons visible from the swimming pool, where I was settled in to spend my Labor Day, and spread like fog around the Golden Gate, dropped the temperature and suggested a late day rain squall was upon us, dark and forboding. But it was all smoke. From summer blue sky to black and white pallet suggesting an old British movie about Welsh coal mining. Ten minutes? Twenty? It was windy, and the ash was falling in the pool within 90 minutes of ignition in Four Mile. Fast. Scary fast.

Up in Four Mile Canyon, where it started, it expanded quickly. About fifteen minutes, in some cases, between someone saying 'honey, do you smell smoke?' and a wall of hundred foot high flames flash frying the walls of a home that exploded into inferno as the occupants dashed to safety. Not only people, but pets and stock have, so far, been amazingly short of casualties. A lot of people did a lot of things well, in time and - be it said - bravely.

It goes on. After planes dumping thousands of gallons of retardant and a night of no expansion, crews now say the fire has consumed about 6100 acres - a reduction from earlier estimates, according to the morning presser - with near 100 buildings vaporized, most homes. The landscape is so altered it is apparently difficult to meld aerial images of the devastation to recent map and memory of what was there and now is not. That alone is revelatory of the last 48 hours. This is - what? - the third time in memory that great areas of Boulder were saved solely by the dying down of the west wind. The Black Tiger Fire in the late 1980's that I watched from my abode in the top of the Boulder Theater burning due west of town, and a fire in January of 2009 that could easily have incinerated large residential developments in the north or, had the wind altered, right down Broadway itself, were the others. I'm not sure we learned from these. The mountain roads remain too narrow for evacuation plus fire truck access. Obvious fire traps of dead trees remain in bulk.

When the wind is at 50 mph, flames become a self-actualizing firestorm which is a weather system to itself even when the wind stops. By the time you judge where to carve out a barrier, the fire's beyond it and over whoever was sacrificed to try and stop it.

It can seem melodramatic to compare what Boulder risks to what Dresden and Tokyo actually endured, but it really isn't. We've been that close, and fire is more of a threat, with the dead beetle kill forests to our west, than that of flood we talk about so much. Another few hours of high wind from the west, this last fire was in the city limits, and in the future the date 9-11 in Boulder might not be remembered as the day of al Qaeda's 2001 attack but the day the Four Mile Canyon fire burned itself out after reaching Niwot in 2010.