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Wildfire Week: Indian Gulch Fire

Last week was a doozy, with a wildfire burning just miles away. I posted real-time updates via Twitter and on our Champion of My Heart Facebook Fan Page, but here is our story and timeline of the Indian Gulch Fire of 2011.

[Sorry. This post is WAY longer than usual. Lots of pictures, though.]

Sunday, March 20

As Lilly and I made our way toward home, after visiting my mom and running some errands down in town, we saw smoke rising in the west. From a distance, we couldn’t tell which canyon burned, but we knew it was at least close to ours.

Tom is in the process of getting recertified in wildland fire fighting. He took leave from our local fire department a couple years ago, but with what looks to be the worst wildand fire season in about a decade coming up, he accepted the invite to run through the training again, take the “pack test” (3 miles, 45 pounds of water on your back, timed walk), and get his “red card,” which is required to fight fires out of your home district.

So, I called the house and got no answer.

“Crap!” I thought. “The fire is in our canyon, and he is out on the fire line.”

Lilly and I made a b-line for home, and as we got closer, we could see that the fire burned essentially right at the bottom of our canyon in an open space park that straddles our canyon and the one just south of us.

Once home, I was thrilled to see Tom’s truck and to know the fire was at least 8-10 miles away. I got on with my day … which included taking Lilly for a walk up the road since we’d skipped our usual in-town, creekside stroll in our haste to get news of the fire.

Ginko was clearly upset about the smoke — very clingy, kind of fussy. But, Lilly didn’t seem worried at all.

At the top of our first hill, Lilly and I found a TV news crew shooting footage of the fire. The reporter wanted to interview me about the fire. He promised to get Lilly on TV. He said that we were likely to get evacuated soon.

Thankfully, a neighbor was out walking her dog too, and I pawned the TV guy off on her.

Lilly and I made our escape both from the camera and the neighbor’s off-leash dog.

Despite the reporter’s evacuation prediction and the fact that the winds that day were indeed blowing the fire toward us, I wasn’t too concerned because it had a lot of terrain to cover in the meantime.

Neither was my neighbor who did the TV interview. (P.S. They did NOT show her dog on TV even though I know they shot footage of her running around in the dry grass.)

Wildfires typically “lay down” overnight, meaning they get less intense as temperatures drop, nighttime humidity comes up, etc, so we were a little surprised to see these flames from our back deck that night. (The video quality isn’t very good, but I did my best in the dark, with my little camera.)

Don’t miss these spectacular nighttime shots of the Indian Gulch Fire from down in town.

Monday, March 21

We learned pretty quickly that local news reports weren’t very helpful. It seemed like they repeated the same information for several days, but we did get word around lunchtime that that reverse 911 calls would announce pre-evacuation warnings and likely actual evacuation orders.

So, I got a few things from our dog evacuation kit ready and thought about what else I might need to grab.

I also kept a closer eye on the smoke from our back deck, looking east down the valley.

Indian Gulch Fire photos March 21, 2011

Smoke from the Indian Gulch Fire at 1 pm on Monday, March 21. I circled the smoke so that you can tell what is smoke and what is clouds.

Indian Gulch Fire photos, March 21, 2011

This one was taken at 2:30 pm Monday.

Indian Gulch Fire photos, March 21, 2011

This one is from 3:30 pm on Monday.

After a nervous day, with seriously like 75 mph winds blowing (downslope) away from us, the fire grew quite a bit, but no pre-evac call ever came.

Tuesday, March 22

So, Tuesday felt a lot better, especially when we realized it had snowed a little overnight. I figured if the fire hadn’t come this far yet, even with winds continuing to howl from the west (pushing the fire away from us), that we’d be OK.

In fact, in the morning, we couldn’t see any smoke at all.

Indian Gulch Fire photo, March 22, 2011

Our view from the back deck at 7 am Tuesday morning.

So, I settled in to work as much as I could amid fielding calls and emails from worried family and friends because the fire continued to grow and dominate local news reports.

Then, around 3:30 pm, my phone went CRAZY. I mean CRAZY, ringing, ringing, ringing. Twelve calls in one hour.

I gave up trying to work and started making dinner instead.

I cannot see the fire zone from my home office, so I thought, “The fire must have flared up.”

And, it had, but in a weird diffuse kind of way, where from here, you really could not tell the smoke from the overcast skies.

Still, no reverse 911 calls, no evac orders, so we assuaged worries of friends and neighbors and just stuck to our plan to stay put … not like we had much of a choice … since the fire led to local road closures, which meant some pretty long detours anyway.

Wednesday, March 23

Once again, the phone and email communication in our neighborhood was hot. A note went out from someone on the ridge that said essentially, the smoke was “right there!” and that we all should be watchful more than we had been.

A friend called a friend in a panic, saying she was evacuating even though it hadn’t been ordered. She too lives on the ridge.

That’s when my phone rang.

Tom had stayed home rather than work in Northern Colorado on Wednesday, just in case something happened with the fire. So, I volunteered him to go down to the house on the ridge and see for himself what was causing all the worry. I went with him. This is what we found.

[Some of my pictures made it onto a local news blog … scroll down]
Indian Gulch Fire photo, March 23, 2011

The view from neighbor's outcropping on the ridge, right at the entrance to our valley @ 9:45 am Weds.

Indian Gulch Fire photos, March 23, 2011

This view comes from the east parking lot of the Centennial Cone Open Space Park that's right in our neighborhood.

Still, Tom continued to be the voice of calm and reason, explaining to me and to neighbors that there fire still had a LOT of terrain to get through, and that if we started to see fire fighting teams on our local ridges and roads, then that would mean something. Until then, he told us … we’re all fine. Plenty of time, plenty of terrain.

We kept an eye on things and even made a couple trips up to the road to shoot these photos.

Indian Gulch Fire photos, March 23, 2011

From our road about 1:45 pm on Weds

Indian Gulch Fire photos, March 23, 2011

From our road about the same time, with our house in the foreground on the right.

Wednesday night, officials left the canyon road open long enough for a community meeting at the grange, where the Level 1 Wildfire Guru who was now running the show gave a briefing of how things stood, what they were doing, which areas gave them concern, etc.

The headline for us, at least, was that the fire had not and likely would not move west much.

This photo which a photographer named Cody Crouch took from up in a helicopter and posted to Twitter gives the best view I’ve found of the fire, including our community, which is in the high mountain meadow you see (the big, brown, flat spot):

Indian Gulch Fire photos, March 23, 2011

Photo by Cody Crouch

March 24, 25, 26

Thursday and Friday went along uneventfully (at least with the fire). As of Friday night, the fire was 100% contained. The big-wig fire teams bugged out Saturday and turned over monitoring and “mop up” efforts back to officials from our county.

The roads are open again, and life is getting back to normal.

Fire Tipline Open

On Thursday, the sheriff’s blog posted this: “Jefferson County Sheriff’s investigators are seeking assistance from the public regarding the Indian Gulch Fire. The fire appears to have started along Indian Gulch north of Hwy 6. Investigators have ruled out all other viable ignition sources and have determined that the fire was human caused.

Sheriff’s investigators are urging citizens to contact the tipline at 303-271-5612 to provide information regarding unusual activity or suspicious persons in the area between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 20th. The area of concern is Hwy 6 between tunnel 1 and Hwy 58, or Golden Gate Canyon Rd. between Mount Galbraith Park and Hwy 93.”

Safe Now. What Next?

So, we had good luck with this fire. While others who live closer to the bottom of the canyon were indeed evacuated, no structures burned. The fire got close — too close — to a couple of houses, but crews were able to protect them.

The big-wig fire team said at the Wednesday briefing that this is the earliest in the “fire season” they’ve been mobilized for a wildfire … ever.

There was another big grass fire last week on the other side of Denver that went from zero to like 1,500 acres in a flash. Some 8,500 homes had to be evacuated, including some of our border collie friends, but teams quickly got that under control thanks to flatter, easier terrain.

In Tom’s wildland classes, instructors are saying to expect low precipitation and high temps through at least July. If we can keep people from accidentally (or on purpose) setting fires, that’ll help. But, there is no telling what it’ll be like once the lightening starts.

Stay tuned.

MANY Thanks!

I cannot tell you how nice it was to receive notes and posts from readers and fans who were worried about us with the fire. Thank you, thank you, for your concern.

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

KB - April 2, 2011

Oh my, we missed it all while we were out west. We vaguely heard about a fire “in Golden” on the news one night… but then it disappeared from the headlines so we assumed that it was fine.

I’m so glad that you’re OK. But, I agree that we have a very scary season ahead.

We were evacuated last fall for one of the fires, and we learned a super important lesson. The dogs freak out… and, we accidentally let R slip out the door while we were loading up our vehicle to depart. Then, he ran around wildly and refused to come to us. I had the absolute worst-case scenario going through my head at that moment… of him running away with a wildfire taking over our terrain. Fortunately, he eventually came to us.

Now, part of our evacuation plan is to lock the dogs in our spare bedroom until we are all walking out the door to get in the car (with them on leash).

Amazing but scary photos.

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