Fourmile Canyon Fire (#boulderfire): There but for the grace of God, go I

A still taken by The Boulder Daily Camera from video at Denver Channel 7 KMGH-TV

I tend to get very passionate about places where I lived and trained as a scientist so please indulge me in my sadness for the folks who’ve lost their homes in the foothills outside Boulder, Colorado, home to the flagship campus of the University of Colorado system. The longer you are in this business, the more you find in common friends whose paths have crossed with yours, perhaps not in time but in place. So, I write for those of us who’ve ever been through Colorado.

One of the many great things about the Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs area is that you can live in absolutely beautiful surroundings while working at some top-notch research universities and tech companies (Note added: apologies to my Fort Collins colleagues for the omission, especially CSU grad, Rebecca Skloot). This is true of many places around the world but when I went to Denver as a postdoc, a housing collapse made it possible for me to purchase a home in the foothills outside the city in rural Clear Creek County.

When you move to the mountains or anywhere wild, you must accept that you are a visitor in a vast natural habitat. You cannot – or should not – have a lawn. You cannot complain if deer eat your flowers, foxes eat your cats, or mountain lions eat your St. Bernard.

You also have to be exceedingly well-prepared for a wildfire. So prepared that you need to be ready to gather all essential belongings within 5-10 minutes and willing to kiss everything else goodbye.

I was fortunate to live in a “neighborhood” up the street from a former volunteer firefighter and regional telephone lineman who led weekend fire and pine beetle mitigation efforts among us soft, flatlanders who were just looking for excuses to use our chainsaws. He pointed to me how to clear trees to prevent crown jumping of fires, how to maintain a defensible perimeter around my tinderbox of a house, and if all else fails, plan to get the hell out of there as quickly and safely as possible. (Serendipitously, his daughter got her PhD at Duke and I fondly remember him walking up the dirt road with this PNAS paper to show me what she was working on.)

I thought of him this week after seeing the story of the Tom and Anna Neuer, a couple who went so far in preparing as to buy an old fire engine to pump water in case of a wildfire.

But even that is not enough – they were at least wise enough to have recently cleared trees along their mile-long driveway that allowed them to escape.

Nine firefighters – the most prepared folks among us – lost their homes while fighting to save others’.

A lot of you out there live in places full of natural beauty that have a tradeoff – wildfires, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes. Please take a moment this week, maybe the weekend, to work on a preparedness plan for you and your family should disaster strike. So far, no one has died in the Fourmile fire – some of these folks are seasoned fire veterans who’ve watched their homes burn before.

More broadly, read this updated Code of the West by author and former Larimer County commissioner, John Clarke: “It is important for you to know that life in the country is different from life in the city.”

And sign up for Twitter – I kid you not – even if you don’t use it now. The reverse 911 system, where authorities call your home to tell you to evacuate, failed in this fire. On Monday, Boulder County authorities told residents to use social media to stay alert and read evacuation orders.  To all of my friends tweeting with the hashtag #boulderfire, thank you for staying on top of this – Twitter may have actually saved lives in this case.

To all of my friends, known and unknown, in Boulder County, please accept my condolences on your losses. But equally, you have my admiration for how wonderfully the community has come together to support firefighters, law enforcement, and evacuees and their pets.

I’m having trouble with YouTube embedding at our new PLoS home but take a look at this nighttime time-lapse video of the fires Monday night – 30 min between 8:00 and 8:30 pm compressed into 41 seconds.

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