The hidden story behind the recent wild fire disaster in Boulder County, Colorado |

The hidden story behind the recent wild fire disaster in Boulder County, Colorado

By Bob West, Whiskey Belle Ranch, Livermore, Colo.

As an architect practicing my profession in Boulder, Colo., for 35 years, now retired living in Livermore northwest of Fort Collins raising Heritage Breed “Scottish” Highland cattle on a small ranch, I watched the news in shock as many others, as high winds whipping flames across vacant Boulder County open space penetrated the adjacent towns of Superior and Louisville. What followed in the next few days was one of the most destructive fires in the history of Colorado.

Over 1,000 homes and many businesses were destroyed or damaged by the flames, which leveled large expanses of neighborhoods. During my architectural career, my firm and I designed several custom homes and many of the major commercial facilities in the path of this monster. I lived in Spanish Hills, a beautiful county subdivision with acre sized lots and horse barns, decimated by the fire. I also lived in a house on the edge of the Coal Creek Golf Course in Louisville for a time. No one, and I mean no one in these neighborhoods ever worried about a massive grass fire that could effect these homes in any measurable level. We lived near towns on the flatlands to avoid the risk of wild fires historically prevalent in the Ponderosa Pined Mountains nearby.

I came to Boulder in the 70s when times were different, hippies, pot, and free love were the dominant image around town. The majority of the neighborhood areas that burned in this fire didn’t even exist, they were cattle ranches. A weather pattern occurred in the late 70s and early 80s similar to this year, a wet spring, then virtually no rain for months and days of very high winds called “Chinooks” were the norm. I recall one day living in south Boulder surviving through a night of 138 mph winds, which actually lifted houses off their foundations and launched them across the street landing against other unsuspecting homeowner’s houses.

Knowing several families, as previous clients, and neighbors who lost their homes in this travesty I grieve for their loss and can’t imagine losing everything, including stranded pets and even loss of life. As we always do in America, the slow process of rebuilding begins. We must, however, try to understand how this event occurred so that we can guard against similar events in the future as similar massive development spreads across the front range, and throughout the west.

Many factors participated in the event. Officials in Boulder will blame climate change. Houses built too close together will get scrutinized by building code officials and fire marshals. The actual facts on the ground tell a different story. In the 70s and before the open spaces around the City of Boulder were mostly owned by private landowners, cattle ranchers who grazed their herds throughout the rich grasslands in the shadow of the foothills. To stop the speed and spread of development in this highly desired area the city and county bought thousands of acres of open space creating a natural zone forming a ring around the city. A valid and valuable effort. Greenies against cattle and their potential methane farts, gained control of the politics over time and banned cattle grazing on most of the vast prairie grasslands preserved around the town. In 2011, Ted Turner, creator of CNN, and Montana buffalo breeder offered a herd of 20 young animals, free to the city to roam the open spaces. The politicians decided the ongoing care and fencing of a herd of bison would be too expensive, even though the citizens were generally supportive, as many people realized the historical importance of the offer, as millions of buffalo roamed the grasslands of this area just over century earlier.

Fires throughout history have occurred in this area, by lightning, or a disregarded cigarette butt from a car on Highway 93. All were put out by talented local firefighters without significant damage. This year was different, years of banned grazing, causing layers and layers of prairie grass and weeds to fall on each other each from the heavy snows of winter creating a buried blanket of dried weeds and rotting grasses. With a wetter than average spring, new grasses grew to over 4 feet tall this summer. No rain for months and a typical windy winter day, with an ignition source still with unknown origin… igniting a substantial fuel source created a heat storm that could not be stopped by any manmade defense. Allowing regenerative “hairy hippie” highland cattle or buffalo grazing on the open space would likely have made the difference, for the land and my neighbors and friends, and my… what a sight to see.


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