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Breathless Call from FF As Flames Rush Across His Home

The Denver Post via YellowBrix

September 09, 2010

The first frantic call for help as a wildfire gathered momentum in the foothills west of Boulder came from a longtime firefighter who was helpless as flames burst across his wooded property, devouring trees and torching a propane tank.

His breathless descriptions — captured on a dispatch tape — detailed the fury of a blaze that, by Wednesday evening, had charred more than 6,300 acres, leveled at least 135 homes and thrown thousands of mountain residents into limbo.

And they sparked confusion — leading many to conclude that the worst wildfire in Boulder County history was sparked when someone crashed into a propane tank.

The reality, however, is that it’s not clear what caused the blaze or exactly where or how it started. What is clear is that it erupted in a matter of minutes, fanned by high and erratic winds.

More than 3,500 residents of the canyons and hillsides west of Boulder were kept away from their homes for a third day Wednesday as firefighters continued the time-consuming task of building a line around the fire.

Among the homes that were lost was one belonging to George Fairer, a longtime member of the Fourmile Canyon fire department who was the first to report the blaze.

The first sign of trouble came at 10:01 a.m. Monday as Fairer burst onto the radio and identified himself by his call sign, 4672. “I have a fire at 100 Emerson Gulch,” Fairer said. “Trees are beginning to burn.”

Dispatchers quickly called out county and federal firefighters, but within minutes it was obvious the blaze was spreading quickly.

By 10:07 a.m., someone else in the area had called 911.

“We also had another (reporting party) call,” a dispatcher said at one point. “They can see flames 10 feet off the ground.”

Two minutes later, Fairer was back on the radio.

“I have a fully involved fire,” Fairer said, his breath straining. "I have trees torching. It’s right at the base of Emerson Gulch.

“Get Gold Hill fire up NOW.”

And then, a moment later: “We need water up here immediately.”

Minutes later, Fairer was on the radio again.

“I just had a gas tank ex . . .,” he said, his words cut off as dispatchers called out more units.

As the dispatcher tried to sort out his words, Fairer spoke again, but it was difficult to make out his exact words on the dispatch tape. After he was asked about the explosion, the tape captures garbled words.

“. . . fully involved in the explosion . . . my propane tank.”

And then the words, “Get help here now.”

As the blaze engulfed a recreational vehicle and headed uphill toward a 1,000-gallon propane tank and the pine forest, a transmission came that may have sparked the confusion about how the fire started.

“Forty-six-seventy-two, you are unreadable,” a dispatcher said. “Any unit that can translate?”

At that point, another firefighter came onto the radio.

“I can copy his traffic,” that other firefighter said. “It was a collision with a propane tank that caused this fire.”

It may have been those words that sparked questions about whether the fire initially started on Fairer’s property when a vehicle crashed into a propane tank.

The Denver Post was unable to locate Fairer on Tuesday or Wednesday. However, Gretchen Diefender fer, a former Gold Hill fire chief, said she spoke with him Wednesday morning. During that conversation, he disputed the report that a vehicle crashed into his propane tank, igniting the fire.

“He said nothing hit it — fire hit it, and he doesn’t know where the fire came from,” Diefenderfer said. “It came down the hill and set off the propane tank. It was not a truck.”

Boulder County investigators continue to try to sort out that mystery.

In the meantime, those who lost homes were trying to contemplate what they would face when they were allowed to return to their property.

Margaret Hansen, who was chief of the Fourmile Canyon fire department for 20 years, saw her ridge-top home 4 miles “as the crow flies” east of Emerson Gulch in flames as she evacuated about 11 a.m. Monday morning.

“Based on what I was seeing then, in terms of the strength of the fire, and then the trying to hone in on some of the Google pictures, I expect it is a total loss,” she said.

Most important was that she escaped with her Norwegian elkhound, Haaken. Secondary is what’s next.

“I would dearly love to rebuild there,” she said.

But whether she will depends on what she finds when she is able to drive back up to the hillside where she has lived for 41 years.

“If there is still vegetation, as opposed to burned soil, I would certainly plan to rebuild,” she said. “Now, if it’s burned soil, it’s time to think.”


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