How a city damaged by fire is recovering one year later

By Caryn Maconi on September 14, 2011

One year after the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history, Fourmile Canyon is still recovering.

The wildfire, which began blazing on Sept. 6, 2010, and was not fully contained for 11 days, burned more than 6,000 square acres. Among the destruction, more than 150 homes were lost.

The Fourmile Canyon Fire recovery center, headed by Recovery Manager Garry Sanfaçon, is an organization dedicated to helping those who were affected by that fateful fire rebuild their lives.

Sanfaçon, whose job was created in the aftermath of the fire in mid-September, oversees projects such as road restoration, land rehabilitation, erosion control, communication with survivors and education outreach.

“Rebuilding is continuously going on,” Sanfaçon said. “The roads are ongoing, just removing debris and sedimentation … we dropped straw and woodstraw over 200 acres in April, and we are reseeding along roads.”

According to Greg Toll, Wildland Fire Management Chief for the City of Boulder, this process of dropping straw onto recovering land helps hold seeds into place and stop erosion.

“It keeps the soil from moving, basically,” Toll said. “Kind of like a mulch, but it’s much more inexpensive and easier to apply than other mulches.”

In addition, the recovery center has issued 45 building permits for businesses and for survivors trying to rebuild their homes. Over the summer, three families had new houses built on their original property and are now comfortably settled back home, while the remaining permits are still in planning or construction stages.

While Fourmile Canyon’s manmade buildings and infrastructure are coming back to life, the forest surrounding the canyon will take years to recover completely, according to Toll. He said that while vegetation is starting to regrow in grassier areas, the most rocky parts of the canyon are still resisting recovery.

“The areas that burned really hot may take a little bit longer,” Toll said. “That’s where we’re having problems with flooding and debris coming down during a hard rain.”

The most severely damaged areas will probably follow a similar recovery pattern as a swath of woodland that was burned during the 1989 Black Tiger Fire on Sugarloaf Mountain. Although that fire was over 20 years ago, Sanfaçon said the swath still looks like pasture and that the ponderosa pines that once filled it will not grow back for decades.

Sanfaçon said the recovery center generally does not intervene or try to speed up natural forest regrowth because of the extent and cost of such an undertaking.

“There are 6,000 acres [of damaged woodlands], so public agencies are not considering spending money on reseeding or replanting,” Sanfaçon said. “They see this as a natural process in the burn area.”

The recovery center and other agencies in Boulder are doing more than just overseeing burn recovery, though. The Boulder Fire Department has its own Wildland Fire Management branch and is working with other fire districts to improve communication and response for future emergencies.

“We’ve gotten a lot of things we had problems with worked out,” Toll said. “Communications are always a problem with any fire… [but] I think the county has a good evacuation plan, so we are just fine tuning.”

Paige Windsor, a 29-year-old Boulder resident, said she would like to have been better informed about safety during last year’s fire. Windsor is not a CU-Boulder student, so she did not receive emergency emails, text messages, and other updates provided by the university.

“I was wondering how fast [the fire] was moving and how far of a I distance I needed to have to be safe,” Windsor said. “[The city] could’ve probably done a better offensive plan on the fire, because it seemed like they were just letting it burn.”

Windsor mentioned that she received plenty of warnings from the city about Boulder’s recent flooding, so she thinks a similar communication plan for wildfires would be easy to accomplish.

According to Chana Goussetis, public health communications manager for Boulder County, resources are available online for Boulder residents to prepare themselves in the event of another fire. On www.bouldercounty.org, Boulderites can access a Mountain Communities Preparedness Guide that features a list of emergency kit items, advice to find safe evacuation routes, and information on flash flooding. In addition, an organization called ReadyColorado (www.readycolorado.org) provides step-by-step guides for what to do before, during and after a wildfire.

Toll said that in Boulder, wildfires can happen almost any time of year. Summer wildfires are generally caused by hot, dry weather and lightning storms. Fires in winter and early spring start with fallen power lines or other accidents and spread due to dry grasses and high winds. The spread of the Fourmile fire, Toll said, was a combination of both dry weather and high winds.

“If you live up in the mountains, you would basically want to know what would start … and grow a fire,” Toll said. “Temperatures, winds, humidity, things like that.”

Goussetis said a general rule of thumb for people in fire-affected areas is to avoid being outdoors where smoke can be seen or smelled.

“Unfortunately there’s not a guideline of how many miles or something like that, so just use your best judgement,” Goussetis advised. “And it is certainly not recommended that you exercise outdoors if you can see smoke.”

No one was hospitalized as a result of smoke inhalation from last year’s fire, according to Goussetis. She said the lack of health issues was probably due less to luck and more to responsible residents listening to their evacuation orders. While some Fourmile Canyon residents defied those orders and tried to extinguish the fires themselves, most understood and respected the seriousness of the situation.

“Fortunately, people got the message,” Goussetis said. “They either stayed inside with the windows shut or left the area.”

Toll said potential wildfires come with the territory for people living in Boulder’s foothills.

“If I were up there, I would put a big, wide field around my house void of any vegetation,” Toll said. “But some people don’t like that. The reason they live up there is for seclusion and trees and everything, but it’s a risk you’ve got to take.”

For more information on wildfire emergency response and evacuation protocol, contact the Boulder Office of Emergency Management at (303)-441-3390.

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