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Fourmile Canyon Fire

Started: 2010-09-08 07:55:52

Submitted: 2010-09-08 08:54:01

Visibility: World-readable

On Labor Day, Kiesa and I took Calvin up to Brainard Lake, intending to hike to Blue Lake. As I was packing Monday morning, I discovered that a screw was missing on the frame for our backpack carrier that transfers Calvin's weight from the vertical frame to the frame that sits on my waist. My on-the-job-training in applied mechanical engineering from early in my career paid off once again as I knew exactly what I was looking for: A 10-32 machine screw with a nylock nut (or the nearest metric equivalent, since the backpack did come from Germany). My local Lowes did not actually have any appropriately-sized nylock nuts, and I guessed the length wrong, but the hardware I picked up was close enough to keep the backpack together for at least one hike.

We drove up Lefthand Canyon, through Ward, as the wind whipped through the canyons. I didn't recall seeing excessive wind on the forecast, but the woman at the entrance fee station said gusts were up to sixty miles per hour but we'd probably be ok in the trees on the way to Blue Lake. (The station had been moved five hundred meters up the road to make way for stimulus-funded construction of a shiny new permanent fee station and a larger parking lot intended to spread out recreational use at Boulder County's most popular wilderness destination. I was pleased to see that the washed-out bridge on the west side of the lake had finally been repaired after two years.) The wind picked up as we drove around the lake. We parked at a sheltered picnic area on the north side of the lake and I took Calvin down the social trails leading to the lake. He toddled a bit and wanted me to carry him the rest of the way. From the lake I saw an ominous tan cloud billowing to the east, which looked like it was just on the other side of the low ridge separating Brainard Lake from Lefthand Reservoir.

Fourmile Canyon Fire from Brainard Lake

I quickly recognized the cloud as smoke from a forest fire and wondered if it was close enough to threaten our escape route. None of the people directing traffic seemed concerned by the cloud, though they couldn't actually see it directly; I presumed they could be in radio contact with the necessary authorities if need be and would caution me from heading up the trail if conditions warranted. We got a space at the Mitchell Creek Trailhead and prepared to head up the trail. Calvin was excited by the prospect of climbing into his backpack carrier; as soon as we set it on the ground and got him out of the car he ran to it. I took that as a good sign.

We headed up the trail, through the mostly-fir forest toward Mitchell Lake. (This was Calvin's first visit to Indian Peaks Wilderness as a person, though he did visit the wilderness as a zygote.) The weather was cool, and Calvin refused to wear the socks Kiesa brought for his hands. We got a little ways past Mitchell Lake when it became clear Calvin wasn't really enthralled by being so cold, so we turned around in search of a good spot to sit and let Calvin toddle around. A hiker came down the trail and cautioned us about the looming cloud of smoke, though like mine, all of his information came from personal observations of the cloud. We found a sheltered spot near Mitchell Lake and let Calvin wander around, picking up fir cones and poking at leaves and flowers.

We headed back to the trailhead and Calvin was not enjoying himself; he cried for most of the way from Mitchell Lake back. As soon as we got him into his carseat in the warm car he fell asleep for the drive back home. I tried to get a better look at the cloud of smoke as we departed Brainard Lake and couldn't really make out a destination. I considered going down Lefthand Canyon versus South Saint Vrain Canyon and decided on the later, which was a wider canyon and a faster drive, though a bit longer. I didn't learn about the true origin of the fire until returning home, when I checked the Internet and discovered that the fire had started in Fourmile Canyon and was thriving on trees weakened and killed by pine bark beetles and the high winds and low humidity. The fire was threatening Lefthand Canyon and had closed that road by the time I left Brainard, but the closure wasn't immediately visible from Peak-to-Peak Highway.

The cloud of smoke lent a pallid yellow tint to the sun in Longmont, and I could see the cloud advancing to the east, blown by the prevailing winds. (Two hours after the fire started, NASA captured an amazing satellite picture of the cloud of smoke heading east.) Our plan for the evening included going out for my thirtieth birthday, but I worried briefly about going out into the smoke after Boulder County Public Health issued a smoke-advisory warning. I decided it would be ok to go out, so when our babysitter arrived, Kiesa and I headed into Boulder and ate at Hapa Sushi on Pearl Street. Driving down the Diagonal into Boulder was fascinating: the sun turned to red in the smoke, and we could see bright orange spots on the hillside, either flames themselves or smoke lit by flame. After eating, we had another half-hour before we needed to be back to our babysitter, so we drove up Flagstaff Road to look at the plume of smoke at dusk and watch the slurry bombers fly back to their staging airport after their last sortie of the day.

Overnight an inversion layer kept the fire from spreading but drove the smoke down to ground level in Longmont and Boulder. I saw ash on my deck and wondered if I was walking on (and breathing in) the remains of someone's house. I could smell smoke in Longmont, and as I drove to Gunbarrel the smoke increased. When I stepped out of my car at work the smell of smoke was overwhelming. My building's HVAC had drawn the smoke into the building but it did manage to filter it somewhat. I noticed the smoke less throughout the day, though whether that was due to my simply becoming used to it or the inversion layer lifting and the smoke blowing away I couldn't say.

The fire is now in its third day and is the biggest and most destructive fire in recent history in Boulder County. I've driven Fourmile Canyon and I've seen the forest and houses that have been destroyed. Though I'm not directly affected in the same way those who have been evacuated and whose houses have been destroyed are, I still have front-row seats for Boulder County's current global-warming-fueled cataclysm.