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Taming a tiger.

"Fire coming up Sugarloaf Mountain," was the cry. "Run for your lives!"

And they did.

Some people barely escaped as flames raged from Black Tiger Gulch and engulfed their homes. At 1,778 acres and more than $5 million in losses including 39 homes and 28 other structures), the Black Tiger fire was the most destructive forest fire in the history of Boulder County, Colorado.

The blaze began around 1 p.m. on Sunday, July 9. County Sheriff Brad Leach says the fire was probably caused by a discarded cigarette near Sunnyside in Boulder Canyon. The time and place for a fire start could not have been worse.

Colorado was in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave. By midday on Sunday the temperature was topping 100, and dry southeast winds blew steadily at 20 to 25 miles per hour. Colorado Governor Roy Romer had banned open fires for half of the state. The forest was tinder dry, and firefighters were on edge.

Black Tiger Gulch is a steep, narrow draw running southeast to northwest from Boulder Canyon. It took only 10 minutes from the first report to the sheriff's communication center for 60 acres to catch and a huge head of fire to build. The initial attack units-volunteer fire departments from the towns of Sugarloaf and Nederland-responded rapidly, but they never had a chance.

Cured grass in the gulch carried the fire swiftly from its source into the timber. The rate of spread was easily three times what it would have been on flat round with the same fuels. The 60-percent slope caused the timber above the fire to preheat, and the natural draw acted as a chimney.

Hot, dry winds pushed the fire with such ferocity that by the time it had climbed 1,000 feet in elevation, a column of smoke was billowing high enough to be visible in Fraser, Colorado, 60 miles away on the west side of the Continental Divide.

The valiant battles it took to tame the Black Tiger holocaust over the following week will be told and retold. Firefighters risked their lives to save other people's homes, in some cases while knowing that their own homes were in danger of burning to the ground.

Almost every fire department in Boulder County's mutual-aid system responded. Overhead was an air show consisting of a DC-6 and two PB4Y World War 11 slurry bombers, plus, two helicopters equipped wi th water- drop buckets slung below. An Interagency Type I Overhead Team-the best available-and trained fire crews from around the West joined local firefighters on the fire lines.

On Tuesday cooler air and a half inch of rain helped the crews get the upper hand, and control was achieved by Thursday morning, July 13. The Type I team was released that afternoon, and the Colorado State Forest Service transferred its emergency authority back to the county at 6 p.m. Friday. Not until the following Friday did Boulder County relinquish responsibility back to the weary Sugarloaf volunteer fire department for final mop-up and patrol.

Residents have been on a roller coaster of emotions that range from disbelief and shock to grief and anger. As long-time Sugarloaf resident Roland Fischer said at a public hearing during the fire, "Don't give me furniture or dishes and clothes. I have no place to put them. I don't have a home. And please don't tel me what I have to do. I just need some time."

Black Tiger was a big-ticket news item for the media, and local residents grew to resent all the unsolicited attention. Early during the fire week, while the ashes of homes still smoldered, one couple was painstakingly searching for anything of value from the remains of their home. A Denver television station news helicopter spotted them and descended, cameras whirling while the helicopter's rotors sprayed the couple with dust and debris. "If I'd had a gun, I'd of shot them," said the wife later.

Black Tiger has added fuel to issues facing firefighters in the West and elsewhere. For example, at one debriefing session, a U.S. Forest Service official was reported to say, "This may be the last fire we'll cost-share based on acreage of ownership involved," referring to an agreement to split suppression costs with the county and state based on the amount of Forest Service land versus private land within the fire's perimeter.

Traditional firefighting tactics dictate construction of fire lines to contain the blaze. Yet from 1:30 p.m. Sunday until 6 a. m. Monday, all firefighting was directed strictly to saving individual structures. A half hour later, when Sheriff Leach toured the fire with the Type I team commander, Bob Miller, structure protection was still a priority.

But the immediate need was to contain the fire on the north side of Sugarloaf Mountain where spot fires were creeping into Fourmile Canyon. From there, sparks could jump to the north side of the canyon, allowing new runs toward Gold Hill and other historic mining communities. At that point, the fire could have spread all the way to timberline, and then half of Boulder County would have been set ablaze.

The big question now is how to prevent more fires like Black Tiger. One proposal is to reduce the density and continuity of forest fuels- trees, shrubs, and grasses-in the vicinity of mountain homes. The Sugarloaf area was one of four units that received fuel-management work during Colorado's Front Range Project (see AMERICAN FORESTS , February 1982). Some of the homes saved this summer were those with trees that were thinned and pruned during that project.

Sugarloaf fire chief Ruth Ravenel is quick to point out that for some of the houses that were lost, forestry work could not have helped. On Lost Angle Road, for example, a wall of flame 150 to 200 feet high engulfed the homes.

Talk of new land-use regulations has already begun. In neighboring Utah local fire departments employ a "green rock, red rock" program. The local department evaluates each homesite as to whether the structure is one they can save in event of a forest fire. If so, a rock near the property entrance is painted green. If nearby fuels would make the effort futile, the rock is painted red. Officials report that landowners who see a red rock suddenly become very interested in what they can do to get a green one.

In Colorado, homeowners have mostly ignored available information on protecting their homesites from fire. Sometimes adversity initiates change. Black Tiger has awakened interest, and State Forest Service offices are receiving daily requests for publications on the subject.

Another question concerns the potential for using prescribed fires to reduce fuels around homes and subdivisions. But managing fire-whether human-caused or natural-in and around subdivisions is complicated and controversial.

For the Rocky Mountain Region, U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Gary Cargill suggests that Boulder County be made a pilot project for demonstrating the results of fuels management. The National Fire Protection Association has requested the opportunity to analyze the behavior of the Black Tiger fire to determine why the home losses occurred and what can be done to prevent such losses in the future.

State Forester jim Hubbard is encouraged that more people now recognize the problem of homes in forests. The question of what is the state's appropriate role still remains. Better equipment, training, and support of local forces are Hubbard's top priorities. But that is going to cost money. To keep one of those big PB4Y bombers sitting at the airport on standby costs $1,000 a day.

The firefighting effort ran up a million-dollar bill. Black Tiger was declared a federal emergency, making it eligible for federal reimbursement of some fire-suppression costs. As of this writing, the August and September fire seasons still lie ahead. The State Emergency Fire Fund is depleted, and even though the Governor has vowed to fight any future fires, how the state will pay is uncertain.

As for the people of Sugarloaf, mountain community spirit is helping them put their lives back together. In addition to assistance from the American Red Cross and United Way, nearby mountain towns are aiding fire victims with fundraisers. Gold Hill alone raised $10,000.

Special projects to rehabilitate fire lines have already begun. State District Forester Craig Jones is coordinating the program for private lands. Owners have been informed of the American Forestry Association's Global ReLeaf program to help with reforestation. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service has approved emergency revegetation work for watershed protection for Black Tiger Gulch, although funding is still uncertain. Sheriff Leach is using supervised jail inmates to assist in the cleanup and grass reseeding.

So now, as the residents of Sugarloaf anxiously await the first green blades of grass, which they hope will come soon after the August rain showers, the Black Tiger Gulch fire is history. But the tough issues remain. GIVING NATURE A HAND

Last year's catastrophic fires in and around Yellowstone Park captured the attention of the American public and raised concern about the destruction of natural resources. In the aftermath, the National Park Service reports that although the face of the Park has changed, nature is recovering well. But in many places, a helping hand is needed.

Last year the U. S. Forest Service spent $2 million on emergency rehabilitation efforts in the Greater Yellowstone Area to prevent soil erosion and water quality degradation and to protect the forest's long- term productivity. The National Park Service estimates that 882 miles of fire lines, dozens of fire camps, 100 miles of roads, more than 600 miles of trails, and innumerable helispots, and other local impacts will eventually require restoration ill the park alone, not including needs in the surrounding National Forests. Total fire-recovery costs are expected to run about 30 million over the next four years.

Private organizations and citizens are providing much-needed assistance to federal efforts through fire-recovery partnerships. To date, more than 300 organizations and individuals (including the American Forestry Association, American Recreation Coalition, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Foundation for Wild North American Sheep, Idaho Forest Industries, and various schools) have contributed about 28,000-as well as volunteer labor-to Forest Service efforts in the Greater Yellowstone Area.

These private contributions have been helpful, but the American Forestry Association believes that organizations and individuals need to become more involved in the restoration of fire-damaged ecosystems. Healthy, productive forests are in the best interest Of all of us. In response to this need, the American Forestry Association has created the Global ReLeaf Fund, where Americans can contribute their dollars to help restore tile nation's damaged forests.
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Title Annotation:Black Tiger fire, Boulder County, Colorado
Author:Gosnell, Ron
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Previous Article:Wildfire update.
Next Article:Cooling our baking cities.

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