Weblog of Leland Rucker
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The Hills are On Fire

The fire earlier this afternoon west of Boulder.

The fire earlier this afternoon.

Another dangerous fire, as always whipped by shifting, gusty winds, has closed all the roads into the foothills west of Boulder.

I got a few photos from south Boulder this afternoon, this one from the trail around the CU property off Table Mesa. Although the TV stations have been following the story all day, we really don’t know much. It’s burning up there west of Lee Hill Road and east of Four Mile Canyon Road, which is where it apparently started about 10 a.m. this morning. There are hundreds of homes up there, and reports are now saying that dozens of structures have burned. Thankfully there are, so far, no casualties or injuries. But firefighters have no control at this point.

I first saw the cloud about 11:45 a.m. I had been having coffee with a friend, and there was no sign of anything at 11:30. Fifteen minutes later, the huge cloud looked almost apocalyptic to the west and north.

The winds have calmed, and it’s cooling off now, and I’ve been listening to the police radio on a website. Evacuations are taking place on Lee Hill and Olde Stage Road, although many people on both of those roads refusing to leave. The Olde Stage Fire wasn’t that long ago.

It’s dark now, and the slurry bombers have stopped running. We drove out to the reservoir on Cherryvale Road just a few minutes ago. The western hills looked a scene from Mordor in the Ring Trilogy. Several fires could be see from near the mouth of Boulder Canyon all the way north to Lee Hill Road, and flames occasionally flared. The photos of burning houses are already filling the news websites. The smell of smoke permeates the air.

September 6, 2010   5 Comments

Three Weeks Past the Olde Stage Fire 2009

I walked the North Foothills Trail on an organized hike Saturday with naturalist Dave Sutherland through an area heavily burned by the Olde Stage Fire 23 days earlier. Sutherland pointed out that the area north of town along the hogback is known for its occasionally swift, intense fires. Sutherland is a great guide, and I learned a lot even though I didn’t do the entire loop. The trail begins off U.S. 36 just north of the Broadway/36 intersection and crosses under the highway heading west.

Here are some photographs and comments from the hike. Click for larger versions of the photos.

We saw a lot of burned yucca plants. Some would break off while burning and become airborne, which is one way the fire jumped U.S. 36.

We saw a lot of burned yucca plants. Some would break off while burning and become airborne, which is one way the fire jumped U.S. 36.

Sutherland pointed out that the fire in this field just north of the subdivision, was set by firefighters to keep the main fire away from the homes.

Sutherland pointed out that the fire in this field just north of the subdivision was set by firefighters, called a backburn, to keep the main fire away from the homes.

This view from higher on the trail shows that backburned area and the erratic nature of the fire's destruction.

This view from higher on the trail shows that backburned area and the erratic nature of the fire's destruction.

This wooden post along the trail shows the intensity of the fire in some places.

This wooden post along the trail shows the intensity of the fire in some places.

A piece of firehose was burned by the fire. Next to the rock on the left, however, are plants that will bloom again in the spring.

A piece of firehose was burned by the fire. Next to the rock on the left, however, are plants that will bloom again in the spring.

Other posts on the fire here and here.

February 1, 2009   No Comments

Photos: Olde Stage Fire Aftermath January 8. 2009

Here are some photos I took this afternoon, mostly along Highway 36 north of the Boulder, Colorado, city limits and just north of Neva Road. The smell of smoke was acrid everywhere, and flare-ups could be seen, mostly on the higher elevations of the foothills west of the highway. Click on the photos for larger images. See my last post for more on the fires.

This is looking west just north of downtown Boulder. You can see smoke at the top of the shot.

This is looking west just north of downtown Boulder on U.S. 36. You can see lingering smoke at the top of the shot.

We watched this building north of Neva Road burn last night from a television helicopter.

We watched this building north of Neva Road burn last night from a television helicopter camera.

The entrance to this horse ranch just west of U.S. 36 and Neva Rd. shows the effects of the fire's intensity.

The entrance to this horse ranch just west of U.S. 36 and north of Neva Rd. shows the fire's intensity.

We watched this area east of U.S. 36 burn last night. The fire climbed this hill and moved east in less than thirty seconds.

We watched this area east of U.S. 36 burn last night. The fire jumped U.S. 36, climbed this hill and moved east and out of sight in less than a minute.

Small fires are still visible on the higher foothill elevations about a mile north of the Boulder city limits.

Small fires are still visible on the higher foothill elevations about a mile north of the Boulder city limits.

At this writing, winds are picking up again in south Boulder. Let’s hope it’s not another long night.

January 8, 2009   1 Comment

Fire in the Wind: The Olde Stage Fire

The view from Dakota Ridge last night in Boulder. (© Denver Post)

The view from Dakota Ridge last night in Boulder. (© Denver Post)

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

January 8, 2009   3 Comments

Boulder County: And I Bring You Fire

I was out on my bike awhile ago, and as I was crossing Foothills Highway on the bike path near Eisenhower Middle School I noticed the tell-tale signs of white smoke moving from east to west across the southern sky, most likely in Jefferson County. As I turned north there was a cloud of black smoke drifting west toward the foothills. From my low elevation it looked like it could be near Lyons.

Smoke from a controlled burn near Lyons drifts westward about 1 p.m. this afternoon in this photo taken near the East Boulder Rec Center.

Smoke from a controlled burn near Lyons drifts westward about 1 p.m. this afternoon in this photo taken near the East Boulder Rec Center.

Fires are serious business in the West, and it has been relatively quiet in Colorado on the wildfire front this fall, coinciding with a spectacular, memorable autumn along the Front Range. So seeing two fires at the same time put me on caution, especially the black smoke in the north. First thought is “controlled burn,” but it was also coming from the direction of the Cemex plant southeast of Lyons, a notable county polluter whose idea of making a buck is burning tires in the midst of a rural residential area.

But Cemex is innocent this time. When I got home I dialed up the website of the Daily-Camera, which had a story that said both were controlled burns.

October 29, 2008   No Comments

Fire in West Boulder

Today was the annual 4/20 Pot Smoke-Out at Farrand Field. This year it got preempted by a real fire in West Boulder. Billie and I were running errands and driving around town when we ran into our old friends Charlie and Janice, who live at Fourth and Pearl streets. We parked and were catching up, when we began noticing the smell of smoke. It was about 2:30.

An iPhone photo of a fire burning on a ridge near Settler's Park in Boulder, Colorado.

An iPhone photo of a fire burning on a ridge near Settler's Park in Boulder, Colorado.

Somebody must be burning leaves, I thought, and looked to the west. Everybody thought that, too, but within just a couple of minutes, we saw puffs of smoke coming over the ridge of the Red Rocks foothill above Settler’s Park. We had just driven east on Canyon, turned onto Pearl at Settler’s Park and noticed nothing ten minutes earlier.

The puffs were becoming more intense, and soon smoke spread out over us heading east. I got out the iPhone and started taking pictures at 2:36. Though it is in the 70s, it has been a gusty, windy day. I was finally driven back home on a bike ride by heavy gusts in south Boulder earlier. You could see the gusts blowing the fire higher up toward the ridge.

I’m looking at Google Earth images of the area, and I’m guessing that the fire began in a huge grove of trees above Settler’s Park and just a little east of the two buildings west of the park. Perhaps along one of the trails that go up to the Red Rocks formation from Settler’s Park.

We moved to the corner of Fourth and Pearl, where we got a better view. The smoke became orange colored as the gusts continued. Finally, we could see flames at the foot of the pine trees at the top of the ridge east of the Red Rocks formations.

There are homes at the bottom of the east side of Red Rocks hill, and there is an old orchard-turned condos east of the Silver Lake Ditch, which winds around the east side of the hill.

It hasn’t been ten minutes, but people are biking, walking and driving down Pearl Street. For every person leaving the area, there are cars, bikes and people heading toward the area. I’m guessing this is due to the ubiquity of cell phones: “Dude, I’m on the roof of the Foundry, and fire is shooting out of the foothills”).

By the time we got home, we could see smoke from Martin Acres.

Here’s the update. No really bad news this time.

April 20, 2008   No Comments