“The South Fork of the South Platt River provides an essential water supply to Denver. It passes through pine covered foothills of the Pike National Forest in an area that is normally moderately dry (I believe about 12”-15” moisture a year). It is sheltered by the continental divide, miles to the west.
For years Jeanie and I searched for the property on which we would build our retirement home. The property we finally chose is situated in those foothills just north of the Strontia Springs Reservoir of the South Platte River, less than an hour from most of Denver.
Jeanie and I bought our property in 1995. We were attracted by its beauty and unspoiled solitude. There was a remarkably clear view of several thousand square miles of forests to the south and west. One could clearly see Mt. Evens, the heights of the Lost Creek Wilderness, Pikes Peak, Castle Rock and even DIA through the trees.
The home we built there was the consummation of our vision for retirement come true. We moved to a spectacular site, surrounded by breathtaking vistas, in the peacefulness of natural beauty from the horizons to our very feet. The shear beauty of the natural world was intimately at hand.
There were no visible scars from large forest fires when we bought the property. Devils Head with its fire watch tower lies 10 miles to the south of our property. It is centered in an area of unusually frequent lightning strikes. It is manned in the summer months for good reason. We quickly learned to watch storms moving across in the afternoon and to remember the location of strong lightning strikes. On numerous mornings we spotted the smoke from small single-tree fires and reported them along with our neighbors, often directly to the Pike National Forrest dispatcher in Pueblo. Without exception, over the years, these fires were quickly attended to and put out.
The Buffalo Creek fire was the first of a string of large, scar producing forest fires, all set by people. It was started by a neglected campfire in late 1996. It ran 10 miles in a few hours on a Friday and was contained the following day. It came within about 5 miles of our property. I watched fire fighting from the first small deck we had build on the top of our property. Jeanie and I decided right then to build our home from concrete and steel and make it as fire proof as possible. We equipped it with every possible fire safety feature, many more that were required by code.
Simultaneously, I began an unending program of wildfire mitigation on our property. I learned form my neighbors and the Colorado Forest Service. We cut ladder fuels, chipped and burned slash and worked to increase the crown spacing of the forest below our house. I joined the National Tree Farm and Colorado Forrest Ag Program. I started mitigation, and I never stopped.
The Hayman Fire was willfully started a few years later, some 35 miles to the south-south-west. Its scar lies above the South Fork of the South Platte River and it has exposed large areas to erosion and flooding. It burned to within about 7-8 miles of our property. Runoff from snow and summer thunderstorms after the fire increased siltation and is reported to have reduced capacity of the Strontia Springs Reservoir. Several years after the fire, my wife, Jeanie, and I happened to watch as a particularly severe storm caused flooding. We turned on our scanner and heard the automated flood warning radios and then a sheriff’s deputy report that West Creek was flooding with large debris. He called for backup and for closing the road (Highway 126). Subsequently, some twenty miles of the highway was washed out upstream from the reservoir.
To reduce the potential for forest fire flooding and siltation of the reservoir, the Pike National Forest chose select areas above the South Fork for thinning. To do so, it cut trees and piled the logs. Trailer trucks then hauled them away. Branches and slash were pushed into large piles and burned in mid-winter when there was substantial snow cover. Our house is roughly 10 miles to the north and we had a clear view of much of the area. Jeanie, and I also watched this work from our house through our telescope.
At about the same time that the Pike Forrest was pursuing its plan of wildfire abatement by thinning or “logging”, it seems the Denver water Board decided to thin some of its lands also.
The Denver Water Board owns below lands around Strontia Springs Reservoir, an essential part of Denver’s water supply. The reservoir lies about two miles south of our house and about 2000 feet lower, on the other side of Willow Gulch and Sheep Mountain. To limit the possibility of siltation to its water supply, it was decided to thin the forest. Of the methods available, the one chosen was to thin by mastication. I believe that was the first of a series of profoundly flawed decisions.
Years ago Jeanie and I first heard heavy machinery operating behind a hill. Then one day an unusual red machine appeared. It had tracks and a long arm with spinning teeth at the head. It was designed so that the cab platform remained level regardless of the steepness of the terrain. The operator would hit a tree in the middle, toppling the upper half. He would then lower the spinning head down the trunk causing pieces and shreds to fly in all directions. Then he would move to the top that was lying on the ground and shred it. It seems he shredded about a third to two thirds of the north slopes, leaving a much-thinned stand of trees. We watched all this through our telescope. At the time it seemed to us it seemed like a good idea. We gave no thought to the nature of the material left lying on the forest floor. But it seems that others did.
The fact is that the mastication did not decrease the fuel load of the forest. Dry climate in the subsequent years prevented significant rotting.
It did not decrease danger. Though the crown spacing was increased, I have since learned that the increased spacing is not likely to reduce the risk of a running crown fire. The unique fuels that were the source the Lower North Fork Fire were chopped and splintered branches and trunks resulting from mastication years before. So, those who created these fuels became believe an increasingly urgent need to remove the postential for danger. At that point, a number of courses were available.
The LNNF group’s investigation and conclusions regarding the fire is presented here separately. I have come to believe that the Lower North Fork Burn began as a poorly conceived effort for a controlled burn in order to correct for previous poor judgment. It quickly became a wildly running crown fire with speeds probably well in excess of 50 miles per hour and gas temperatures in the range of 2000 to 3000 degrees. I believe that the investigation of the LNFF will eventually show clearly that the many, many decisions involving concept, planning, decision to ignite, and subsequent efforts to carry out and then extinguish the fire were, one by one, were so egregiously flawed as to constitute unmatched negligence.
That fire was planned, it was started by and it was not contained. It was never controlled. ….by people. Those who were responsible …over time, at many levels. …little people, with spines too feeble to stand and take responsibility.
Then and now they are sheltered. They hide behind each other’s skirts to this day, hoping that time will erase their sins, that some paltry future offering may ease their guilt.
And when cornered they will probably look us straight in the eye, …and with all the specious rightness they can muster, they will heap lie upon lie.
Who are these people? They populate, …in fact, they are of our government. The very government that should be looked to for responsible conduct, to provide the standards, the model for responsible action for us, all its citizens.
But now good, self sufficient, independent people must argue and defend themselves. The burden has been place upon US. We must devote our time and our resource (what little you have left us) toward proving our losses. Yes, you steal our time, which like lives, when taken, can never be replaced.
This did not need to happen. It could have been avoided
Take a single case case: Our close friend lost his home. He lost his wife, the light of his family, his business partner. He lost his business, and all of his business records. He lost his inventory. He is faced with the very real threat of imminent bankruptcy. He is forced to commit what little resources he has left to an attempt to regain what he can. He survives with the support of two admirable sons, a group of close fiends and the charity of an unknown number of truly generous people, charity which he honestly needs yet for which he is deeply embarrassed to receive.
Now think again about this for a moment. That fire was not due to natural causes. It was not due to an accident. It was not just set by people.
IT WAS SET BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF OUR GOVERNMENT.
Friends were killed. Livelihoods were shattered. Property was destroyed.
And it was avoidable. It need NOT have happened.”Read More »
The wind was relentless as I took a break from work in my home office to drive “down the hill” to Littleton and have some Chinese food for lunch around 1:00. On the way back home I noticed smoke in the distance high in the foothills that appeared to be was close to where I lived, but it is hard to tell exactly from down below.
As I drove up Deer Creek Canyon I caught glimpses the smoke plume growing higher, each time hoping it was not close to where I lived. No such luck. As I turned up High Grade Road it was clear that the smoke was in the vicinity of my home. Anxiously I turned up S. Kuehster Road and drove directly to the Lamb School House where I could see it was the controlled burn my neighbors and I had watched with great concern the past days. I remembered getting a call from a neighbor the day the burn was started by the Colorado State Forest Service. She was concerned that she could see a large smoke plume from Denver where she worked and was concerned about her house. There was no notification of the burn for those of us on S. Kuehster Road. One neighbor did call and was instead told about the controlled burn taking place the same day in Ken Caryl, but not even an acknowledgement of the Lower North Fork Burn, as we now know it.
I was worried because the wind was howling at that time and it was hard to imagine that this was a good thing, but I had no idea the horror that lay ahead for me and my neighbors.
When I returned home I turned on the Fire Scanner. I then called two of my neighbors to compare notes on what they were hearing and seeing since I did not have a direct view of the fire. What we heard on the scanner could best be described as chaos. We quickly decided we better start packing just in case the worst happened.
My wife, Mary Ann, had been visiting her family in Denver and was on her way home. I was able to reach her and told her to get home quickly because there was a fire. This was around 3:30. I remembered my insurance agent telling me that I should inventory the house with video in case of a catastrophe; of course we always put that off. I quickly ran through the house and videoed every room in 5 minutes. I grabbed the dog cages and was debating which car to take. I believed there was still plenty of time.
I started packing a bag; getting out my large suitcase I use for business travel. I remember thinking I should take comfy clothes and threw a sweatshirt into the suitcase. For no good reason I walked out to the upper deck to get some air and saw the forest on fire just below me and the sky turning black powered by gale force winds. I quickly closed the suitcase with just a sweatshirt in it as my wife walked in house.
I told her we need to go NOW! A couple of neighbors called as we flew around the house in what can best be described as a panic. I told them to get out of here and we were leaving. This was at 5:15.
She scurried about trying to gather up all of the animals, 2 dogs, 2 cats and a bird. I had already loaded my PC’s, personal and business records. That was all we had time to gather. We loaded all of the animals into her car with no regard to trying to get them into cages. She later told me she almost wrecked the car several times as the animals would crawl under her legs as she drove.
We sped down Kuehster Road to find many of our neighbors and emergency vehicles staged at the bottom of the road. It did not seem safe to linger, this thing was horrendous and was growing fast, so we traveled down High Grade Road.
It was infuriating to see bicyclist leisurely riding up the hill as if nothing was going on, getting in the way of everyone trying to flee or get home to save life and limb.
We checked into a hotel just at the bottom of Deer Creek. We hustled the animals and our suitcase containing one sweatshirt into the room. I have a live weather station that broadcasts from the house with live webcams and we quickly logged on to see what the house was like if it was still online. It was and we could barely make out the house from the thick smoke, sometimes blocking the view entirely. We continued to watch wondering if we would soon see it burst into flames. Then, we were disconnected. We knew either the power went out or the house was gone.
We tried to eat a bite at Chilis, but could not. So we went to the pet store to get food for the animals and spent the rest of the night laying in bed with vivid visions of fire raging through the house. We later learned most of our neighbors had the same dream and many still do to this day.
Early the next morning a neighbor knocked on our hotel room door. We got online to check the news channels. We gathered as we watched live raw video from a news chopper . I was surprised to see that one of my neighbors house was still standing and quickly sent him a message with the good news. The video then zoomed in on the house next door to my neighbor watching the video with me. He said he had been on the phone with them as they were packing. He then said stop the video. Looking at it he said ” they only have 3 cars and they are all still there in the burned out structure”. He was referring to Sam and Linda Lucas who perished in the fire. We were unfortunately the first to know.
March 27, 2012… My new reality begins.
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Reprinted with Permission from – http://kristenmoeller.com/2012/04/fire-on-the-mountain/
Posted on: April 5th, 2012 by Kristen Moeller
We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us – Winston Churchill
On the morning of Monday March 26th, I enjoyed the early morning quiet as I began what was to be a very busy day. I was squeezing in 12 separate conference calls so I could take the rest of the week off for my trip to California, first to speak at Inside Edge and then to join my colleagues at Rejuvenate Training to begin my spring marketing launch for my business.
How it looked at 2pm
As usual, I sat drinking my coffee on my favorite leopard chaise by the window, one 90-pound dog curled up at my side, the other at my feet. I gazed at the view, which even after 9 years, I never took for, granted. Ahhhhh. Life in our dream house, our little paradise of a retreat on the side of a mountain. How lucky we were.
I remember the first time we found it. The ad in the paper sounded to good to be true: 37 acres, 2 bedroom, 1 bath, far ranging views – and an exciting bonus – completely “off-the-grid”, meaning solar power only. After getting used to mountain living 4 years before, we craved even more adventure. As we approached the property down the mile-long, jeep-trail of a road, through groves of shimmering Aspen trees, the view began to emerge. Each step closer we took, we held our breath a little more, fully expecting to be disappointed at the end. We had so many near misses, seen homes that didn’t quite do it – that sounded good on paper yet never felt like our place. As we rounded the last corner, we glanced at each other as the sweetest profile of a house I had ever seen greeted us. Set against towering pines and perched on the side of the hill, this paradise looked out over a vast expanse of mountains ranges including Pikes Peak sixty miles to the south.
We found our forever home.
Every time I pulled in my driveway, I would take a moment to admire that sweet profile of our magical home and breathe a sigh of relief.
At 11:20am, I emailed my house sitter with directions and got ready for my next call. Sometime later, I noticed a smoke cloud over the next ridge. The Thursday before, I had seen a similar cloud and, as all mountain residents are trained to do, I searched on-line for information. Relieved to see it was a “controlled burn”, my husband and I went on a hike with our dogs before I hosted my radio show. During the intro of the show, I talked about the “adventure” of living in Colorado and the concern that most mountain residents felt during this particularly dry spring.
So this day, I searched again. My first indication that something was not right came from a post on our community forum called “PineCam”.
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 2:15 pm Post subject: lower north fork fire
Elk Creek and North Fork Fire departments responding to a reported 1 acre fire about 6 miles down Foxton. This may be a burn over from a controlled burn in that area several days ago.
This was new – and somewhat alarming. Having lived in the mountains since 1999, I had seen other fires but fortunately had never been very close. Prior to moving to this home, the dramatic and devastating fires at Buffalo Creek, Hi-Meadow and Hayman had left their still visible scars on our vistas.
Today, the wind was whipping. At one point, large branches blew against my door. I flinched, and my dogs growled. Not a good day for a fire.
To keep informed, I checked PineCam again after my next conference call ended:
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 2:28 pm Post subject: Update is fire is up to about 5 acres at this point. Requesting additional resources.
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 2:42 pm Post subject: Elk creek will be staging at the entrance to Reynolds Park, additional units being requested.
Still continuing with my day, I emailed my clients about upcoming writing days.
Checking again, my concern begins to grow. I repeatedly try to reach my husband who was on a business trip in Seattle.
At 3:20, I begin communicating with an informed poster on PineCam, Dave Cochran (to whom I am forever grateful!) who seems to have up-to-date info.
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:44 pm Post subject: Fire has grown to 10 to 15 acres per fire crews. Foxton Rd. closed at 285. Also Platte River Rd. closed at Buffalo Creek (126) to Confluence.
My friend Jolene arrives to help me prepare for my trip. She thinks we should start packing boxes in case of evacuation. I don’t want to mess up my house, so instead we start making calls and trying to find out information.
At 3:53, I ask the Dave on PineCam if he can speak with me on the phone. Inquiring what I should be watching for, he said that the white smoke cloud indicated the fire was still on the ground, if it turned black or brown that meant it had moved to the trees.
At 4:21, I text my friend Shawn and ask him to come help me cut down trees, he says he is on his way.
At 4:28, I began to email Dave some photos from my vantage point to get his opinion.
At 4:31, I post a picture on Facebook. Subject: Fire way too close to my house. Prayers please.
At 4:43, I send a new picture to Dave. The subject “Hit trees”. The cloud has exploded, turning a frightening brown. I see it in the middle of a message I am leaving for David’s colleague in Seattle. “Oh, fuck” is what I say and hang up.
My friend Greg arrives and begins loading my car. Somewhere in this period, David calls and I completely break down, unable to speak and hand the phone to Greg. David gives instructions to bring a few of his things.
I am now walking room-to-room staring blankly and wondering what to take. My eyes rest on an object for a moment and I make a split second decision to take it or leave it. Feeling somewhat out of body, yet not really believing I wouldn’t see my things again, I throw objects into bags. I grab my pillow, favorite blankets, a few beloved articles of clothing, my wedding album, and some jewelry.
Joleen runs to the shed to get the cat carrier and then begins to throw more pictures in a bag. I put the dogs in the car, relieved to have them ready. I keep going back in the house, thinking of “one more thing…” At one point, I grab my computer monitor but keep smashing into things as I attempt to carry it out. I drop it, thinking it’s a $300 piece of equipment – not that important. I go out to the car, and then come back for my slippers. I rack my brain for what else I should be taking. I run back in again for dog food and bowls.
Then Sean arrives and we know it’s time to go. Not because of any official warnings, but because we see flames below my house and an enormous billowing cloud of smoke which seems to block the road out.
I close the door and take what I didn’t realize would be my last look at my dream house.
The way out…
I don’t see the below posts until later:
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 5:00 pm Post subject: Mandatory evacuation of Kuester Rd to Conifer High School.
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 5:04 pm Post subject: fire size is now over 100 acres, is Crowning
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 5:04 pm Post subject: A pic from a fellow Pinecammer prior to evac, towards the end of Kuehster Rd. (My pic I sent)
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 5:35 pm Post subject: Estimated evac for Pleasant Park/Kuester area is 500 homes per feedback from team.
I text David at 5:52pm to let him know I am at Staples parking lot. We recon with friends to make a plan. I don’t see the rest of these posts until I am at Jessica’s.
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 5:49 pm Post subject: Per Elk Creek Fire, a Structure Protection Task Force is being implemented.
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 5:55 pm Post subject: West Metro Fire is adding resources to this incident.
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 6:10 pm Post subject: All fire resources are being sent to InterCanyon Fire Station 3. Also fire reporting fire has jumped Kuester Rd.
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 6:38 pm Post subject: JCSO unit reporting from end of Kuester Rd that here has been burn out in that area.
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 7:34 pm Post subject: Fire crested ridge east of Reynolds park and is running WNW
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 7:49 pm Post subject: Pleasant Park Rd. traffic is being restricted per JCSO. Avoid travel along this road.
Now safely at Jessica’s having handed off one dog to my friend Jessie and the cat to Greg and keeping my puppy Tigger with me, I begin following the updates.
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 8:51 pm Post subject: Over 900 homes reported as evac per Denver Post. InterCanyon Fire reported 200 plus acres a couple hours ago, likely much larger now.
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:14 pm Post subject: UPDATE: The Lower NorthFork Fire is now over 3,000 acres with more than 900 homes evacuated. according to CBS4 News.
While I slept, this was happening.
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:19 pm Post subject: As of 9:00 this evening all major news outlets are reporting 900 evacuations for the Lower North Fork Fire.
I start emailing concerned friends and responding to posts on Facebook checking on my whereabouts. I let my mom and dad know I am safe. I realize I have received a text at 5:10pm with an evacuation warning. I never received a reverse 911 call. My sleep is sporadic – all night long I think of my home and those of my neighbors and pray for everyones safety.
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