On Sept. 6, volunteer firefighters from four mountain districts west of Boulder were thrown into a nightmare of fire fronts erupting without warning. Firefighters battled where they could make a stand, but near-gale-force winds churned the Fourmile Fire into the most devastating wildfire in Colorado history.
Much of the damage would occur in that first day of the blaze, as the Fourmile Fire would consume 169 homes and cause $217 million in damages, about four times that of the second most expensive fire, the 2002 Hayman Fire.
But for many of those volunteers, the Fourmile Fire continues to be daunting months after the embers have cooled, leaving an aftermath that firefighters continue to battle on many fronts.
“The fire continues every day for everyone involved in the department. It permeates everything you do,” said Brett Haberstick, chief of the Sunshine Fire District, the hardest hit agency in the blaze. “You can’t escape it. There are times when it’s just too much, and you have to take a break, but it’s a job you never leave.”
Haberstick faces severe revenue loss, manpower shortages, and wide-scale rehabilitation and erosion-control needs amid the loss of the departmental records. He and the other chiefs from the affected districts work daily on a complex set of needs from constituents, who individually face a baffling array of insurance, erosion, forest rehabilitation, disposal and building issues complicated by the predictable entry of a few charlatans and thieves.
“It’s been hard, but the district remains strong and continues to provide coverage for our constituents,” Haberstick said. “Sunshine took a big blow, but it wasn’t a knockout punch.”
At least 12 firefighters lost homes in districts that typically have 30 to 40 active members. One of those was veteran firefighter Rod Moraga, an expert in wildfire fuels, mitigation, management and pre-attack planning who founded a nationally prominent wildland fire consulting company, the Anchor Point Group. Now building a new home in Boulder, Moraga said he, and that expertise, will not likely return to the Four Mile Fire District.
“I don’t know how many of us are still really active,” he said, “because even the people who didn’t lose their homes are extremely busy – cutting trees around their home, dealing with insurance claims for smoke damage. …
“I had to completely remove myself from that (the volunteer department),” Moraga said. “Every single day I am dealing with e-mail or phone calls from the insurance people, the county, getting debris removed, getting my house (remains) scraped. There just isn’t enough time.”
And for the fire chiefs for the affected districts – Sunshine, Four Mile and Gold Hill took the brunt of home loss, though Sugarloaf was involved to a lesser extent – it will be some time before they are out of the woods, perhaps even another two years, said Allen Owen, the Boulder District Forester for the Colorado State Forest Service.
Rehab for this fire is more difficult, Owen said, because 70 percent of the land involved is privately owned. For rehabilitation efforts to take place on a large scale or landscape basis – such as aerial seeding – permission will have to be granted from each of the landowners, and there are 650 landowners in the fire area.
Boulder County is the lead agency for the rehabilitation work that is largely financed by federal funds, but Owen said there is still reliance on the fire districts to get information to their constituents and help secure permission to begin.
“People see them as the good guys. They are out there doing good things,” he said. “And at least they aren’t under the gun. People believe the firefighters did everything they could.”
Right now the rural fire chiefs are doing everything they can to make sure their districts continue to exist. Sunshine lost about 30 percent of the homes in its district to fire, Haberstick said, and the district is almost entirely funded by a mill levy based on the valuations of homes within the district.
Given that even unscathed homes within the fire area will also lose value, Haberstick said district officials fear that funding from property taxes may fall by 50 percent when the county assessor provides the districts with numbers in February.
Four Mile Chief Bret Gibson said his district lost about 16 percent of its homes, but some of that loss was offset by the passage of a mill levy increase the board had scheduled for a vote before the fire.
However, when all is said and done, Gibson said the loss of homes and the devaluation of the remaining homes may decrease property tax revenue by 30 percent to 40 percent.
Gibson has his own set of problems, including a fire station that burned down along with a fire engine. His district also saw nine firefighters lose their homes, meaning his manpower is even more diminished.
The Four Mile district had the only paid crew – which worked on fire mitigation projects when not answering calls – which for now is only kept going by about $20,000 in donations received since the fire.
The remaining Four Mile volunteers have doubled their shifts, Gibson said. He thought equipment replacement, such as trucks that are more than 30 years old, would take the brunt of any funding shortfall.
“We’re still a good firefighting force and a good medical agency,” Gibson stressed. “Morale has actually been pretty good. We’re all connected to each other beyond the fire department.”
The reality, of course, is that these districts have to remain vital, because they go well beyond providing firefighting and medical coverage. In the absence of town governments, the districts really are the center of these communities.
“We all take pride in the fact that no one was killed or seriously injured,” Gibson said. But replacing the homes, neighbors and the landscape everyone moved here to enjoy is not in the foreseeable future.
“You know this is possible,” Gibson said. “But it’s different when it’s your own district.”
That pain is acutely felt with every drive past the lost home of a neighbor, district board member or fellow firefighter, Haberstick said. It is reinforced by the 6,000 acres of blackened trees and soils burned to the point at which they simply repel water.
The fire chiefs themselves are volunteers, and Haberstick said the 70- to 80-hour weeks he now puts in have been a strain, but he has few options.
“The district has to be in a place to respond, both as fire department and the center of the rural community,” he said. “The community has needs.”
In Gold Hill, Fire Chief Chris Finn said he expects the home loss to be less severe, perhaps 10 to 15 percent of the district total. That was near miraculous as firefighters barely kept the fire out of the center of the town, aided by a last-minute aerial drop of flame retardant that helped turn the tide.
Finn’s 16 years as chief did little to prepare him for these days, he said, including the amount of time needed and the constant reminders of the fire’s devastation.
Firefighter morale, Finn said, is one of the most difficult problems to face.
“We were thrown off that fire three times. Three times we just had to abandon our positions,” he said. “Every time we did that we were walking out on the homes of our friends and neighbors. We knew every one of those homes.”
Somehow those are always the lingering questions for firefighters – could they have done more mitigation, could they have taken bigger chances and saved more homes?
“I have those questions about losing my own home,” Moraga said. “But you have to let go.
“We fought a fire in our own district and we took a pretty good beating. We lost our homes and our neighbors’ homes, and that’s not what you signed up for,” he continued.
“But this was a very large natural disaster we had no business thinking that we could successfully fight. When a fire gets to a certain size we have no control over them. If we have a tornado, a hurricane or an earthquake, no one has expectations that we can save those homes.”
Several charitable organizations are helping firefighters and homeowners affected by the Fourmile Fire. Donations can be made to individual fire districts, or to the Boulder County Firefighters Association through the mGive Foundation through the “text FIRE to 27722″ mobile donation campaign. All donations to the BCFFA will go to firefighters who lost their homes. Donations to all homeowners can be made on The Community Foundation website, www.commfound.org, by clicking the “donate now” button. Be sure to designate gifts to the Boulder Mountain Fire Relief Fund. Or write a check to Boulder Mountain Fire Relief Fund and mail to: The Community Foundation, 1123 Spruce St., Boulder, Colo. 80302.
Jeff Thomas has an masters of science in natural resource management and behavior from the University of Michigan and was a Ted Scripps fellow in environmental journalism.