Fire in the Wind: The Olde Stage Fire
One of the things I promised to myself when I moved to Colorado more than twenty five years ago was to stop complaining about the weather. Coming from Missouri, where I carped constantly about the humidity and cold, I knew that Colorado weather was for me.
And for the most part, I have. I absolutely love the climate along the Front Range. But every year, it seems, the inevitable Chinook winds begin to blow me down, get into my brain and keep me awake at night. One day last week the winds began at noon and didn’t quiet down for eighteen hours. Everybody who lived in the area was Twittering about it. And this winter seems to have already given us more than our share of windstorms.
One of the first stories I read about Boulder not long before we moved here in 1983 was a report about Chinooks, which blow down here from the Continental Divide just west of here, and a recorded wind gust of more than 120 miles per hour in south Boulder. That gave me pause, but thankfully not enough to stop us from moving here.
The first few years I was awed by the windstorms and their unpredictability and sometime ferocity. We lived for a few years in a duplex up in north Boulder that had six or seven tall cottonwood trees lining the street in the front yard, and watching the gusts sway those huge trees just mesmerized me.
But the winds wear me down sometimes. About two weeks after we moved to Martin Acres, I woke up to a huge branch two feet thick and fifteen feet long in my back yard. It had dropped from a tall elm tree just over the line in my neighbor’s yard, and this new homeowner wondered whose responsibility the removal of the branch was going to be That same tree has shed a fair number of large branches, and I have picked up thousands of limbs and twigs over the time we have been here. I’m still wary of letting the dogs out there during windstorms.
If you have never experienced Chinook winds, they blow down in straight gusts, squalls and drafts that often howl like trains or scream like phantoms. More than once I have fantasized the windows in the living room on the west side of the house popping out of their frames or simply exploding. Last week, after that eighteen-hour blow, my neighbor’s trash dumped over and emptied into the side yard. This morning I noticed that I seem to be missing a tile of my roof.
Speaking of explosions, one night several years ago a gust caught a weak spot in the fence in my back yard and blew it up, leaving a large gash in the wooden enclosure. One afternoon I came home and noticed that another side of my back fence was leaning. I raced back and wound up trying to hold up a 4×4 that my neighbor and I hadn’t anchored deep enough in cement and that the wind had broken off at ground level. Talk about feeling helpless.
Our neighbor across the street bought one of those pop-up campers some years back. One night, during an especially windy session, we watched from our front door as the pop-up camper came sliding, almost flying, across the street. Had it not been for our curb, it could easily have plowed into our front window.
I have seen photographs of trees completely upended by windstorms, not especially a comforting thought when trying to sleep in a bedroom with a forty-foot pine tree not ten feet west. I have to clean the gutters under the tree several times a season. One time I forgot, and during a rainstorm the clogged gutters overflowed, nearly flooding my basement.
Still, though the winds cause damage and some anxiety, I have thought of this as my own problem. I live in the place I love, and like residing in mountain-lion and bear habitat, the wind is just something you learn to live with.
Then, yesterday, the winds took a devastating turn. A couple of miles north of Boulder along Highway 36, which parallels the foothills, two fires caused by downed power lines got started and, aggravated by winds gusting 60 and 70 miles per hour for the next twelve hours, finally converged in a firestorm that swept across thousands of acres of farm and ranch land, destroying at least homes and some outbuildings and warehouses and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents.
The area north of Boulder along Highway 36 is especially vulnerable to the effects of fire and wind. There is a lot of open space, mostly covered in scrub grass and vegetation. There are also a number of subdivisions, both in the pine forests west of the highway and among the horse and llama farms on the eastern plains.
Five or six fires have broken out in this general area during windstorms in our tenure. But never, at least since we have been here, with the quickness and intensity of this one.
Television news was able to offer some incredible images of the speed of the fire as it moved west to east. At one point north of Neva Road that Billie and I know well, as firefighters and the newscaster struggled to keep their balance, we all watched helplessly as a wall of flame on the west side of the highway burned its way to the pavement and then jumped the highway. As it crossed, it looked like a giant blowtorch, and when the flames made the eastern side of the highway, they immediately burned through a fifty-yard section of grassland in no more than twenty seconds before disappearing over the hill. I had heard firefighters talk of how a fire seems to be a living, breathing thing, and this video was certainly testament to that.
A few minutes later, embers were flying eastward out of the burned stubble, following the original blowtorch fire over the same hill. A couple of chilling helicopter cameras backed up to landscapes crawling with fires and sparks on long curved lines down through canyons and draws just north of Boulder’s city limits. It was like a scene from an epic battle at the gates of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.
The flames didn’t make the Boulder city line last night, and, incredibly, there seems to have been just a few minor human injuries and no animal deaths, although several buildings and a couple of homes have been destroyed. The winds died here in south Boulder sometime before midnight. Authorities at this hour say the fire is thirty percent contained, with lots of hot spots and activity, but they hope to have the Olde Stage Fire under control this afternoon. Forecasts call for twenty four hours of relative calm before the next winds begin tomorrow.
Lay me by cool water
There’s fire in the wind
– John Stewart