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Wildfire! The dark side of the wind power.


Perhaps it was just a conspiracy of natural events. That s the way it seems when I am at my most rational. But at other times this neutral concept stretches my powers of equivocation to very near the breaking point. For it was far more than a collusion of impassionate forces loosed against the canyon that night. It was a willful, savage, insatiable hunger.

The ominous radio call went out at 10:49 p.m. on the night of April 2nd. For the past 27 hours crews from both the county and the local volunteer fire department had been fighting a relatively quiescent 25-acre forest fire on Crystal Mountain in Buckhorn Canyon at 8,500 feet altitude. Earlier in the evening the general feeling among firefighters was that the blaze had been contained and controlled. Under normal conditions it surely would have been. But the hot downslope winds that had begun at noon that day steadily intensified throughout the evening. It was later confirmed that one nearby weather station measured a 93-mph gust about the time the two words, "It's gone!" crackled across emergency-band radios all up and down the canyon.

By 12:15 a.m. on the morning of April 3rd, one hour and 26 minutes after the original breakout, the fire had burned its way through nearly five miles of mountain ridges, valleys and homesteads, creating a path of destruction that ended at the county road snaking along Buckhorn Creek. At that point it had consumed over 2,000 acres and there was nowhere else for the fire to advance. A formidable mass of granite, gravel and trees known as Christ Mountain lay just beyond the fire's leading edge, and brutal west winds were keeping the fire contained within the broad valley it had so recently and thoroughly devastated.

Then the impossible happened. Seemingly in defiance of all laws of physics, a red-hot cluster of sparks and embers was carried aloft 1,900 vertical feet in a roiling cloud of superheated smoke and dropped onto the lee side of Christ Mountain, without singeing a single pine needle or blade of grass on the windward side. There it quickly gobbled up several hundred additional acres in Redstone Canyon, a scenic landscape of red sandstone cliffs perpendicular to and nearly one mile due east of the Buckhorn.

All of this was unknown to LaVonne and me, at least until midnight. Three different neighbors had called earlier to warn us that the fire was heading our way, but for reasons that remain inexplicable our Internet phone never rang that night. Fortunately (and I use this word in its most urgent sense), LaVonne was unable to sleep, in part because of the frequent wind gusts shaking our sturdy log house. Opening her eyes, she saw the sky was glowing orange and she ran to the loft's west window. What she saw in the sky off to the northwest terrified her to the bone. She screamed, "Rex! There's a fire!" I rolled out of bed and stumbled to the window. The surreal scene I saw before me stole the breath from my lungs--an intense orange light like an evil, nascent sun, looming just above the northwest horizon. It glowed eerily bright, despite the fact it was entirely engulfed by violently churning black clouds. As we watched with our hearts in our stomachs, flames appeared on the ridge a few hundred yards to the northwest.

"We've gotta go, NOW!" I cried, though it hardly needed saying. Within 15 minutes of frantically calling neighbors and packing up dogs and computers, we were heading out in two vehicles, certain beyond any doubt that everything we left behind would be incinerated within minutes of our escape.

There was, however, a problem even more severe than the prospect of losing everything we owned. Our house is situated at the end of a steep, winding road. A crow making a beeline from our roof to the Buckhorn Road would glide just a little over haft a mile, and had we been crows we wouldn't have had much trouble getting out. But our vastly more cumbersome route required us to drive first a quarter mile due west, then another quarter mile north--right into the path of the fire--before we could turn east to safety.

I led in the pickup; LaVonne and the dogs followed in the Pathfinder. We drove west as fast as we could over rocks and ruts and rain bars, but by the time we emerged from the trees along our drive and turned north, we could see that we were too late. The north-leading section of road had been transformed into a gauntlet of fire, smoke and ash. A horizontal wall of flames from burning trees, bushes and tall grass had rendered the road invisible. But was it impassable? I stopped to let LaVonne pull up beside me. We had two choices: double back to the house and try to escape on foot down the mountain and along the creek to the southwest, or run the gauntlet. Neither was much of an option. We could die running away from the fire, or die trying to drive through it. We decided to trust the safety of the vehicles. And our instincts.

With a fist-sized knot churning in my stomach I drove into the flames, careful to keep LaVonne's headlights fast on my tail. The gauntlet, I quickly realized, was even worse than we'd feared. I couldn't see anything beyond the flames and the impenetrable smoke, but by then it was too late to back out. I was driving through the pit of hell by feel and adrenaline, testing to the uphill side every few yards, trying to sense if the truck was close to the embankment. I drove fast, blind and recklessly, and how I kept from veering off the downhill side into the flames I will never know. I negotiated past one jog in the road then another, each an eternity apart, and somehow intuited the sharp right turn heading east to safety. The road was clearer here in the windward direction, but still crowded by flames and smoke. I glanced in the mirror to confirm that LaVonne was still right behind me. Then I punched it. And as we outran the voracious flames, I counted myself among the luckiest people in the world. Everything we owned was about to be consumed, but my wife and dogs were safe and for that I had never felt so happy. We drove 20 miles into town, never looking back.


By 6:00 a.m. the temperature had dropped 50 degrees and it was snowing on the mountain. Or so we were told by John B., a firefighter friend who called LaVonne's cell phone as we sat dejected with friends and fellow evacuees in the dining area of the local La Quinta Inn. Had our houses survived? John didn't know; there was too much smoke from his high vantage point on a ridge a half-mile distant. He thought he could see the roof of our house, but he wasn't certain. An hour later, after a close-up reconnaissance, John gave our good friends Cory and Linda, a third of our small group, a grim report: there was nothing left of their beautiful log home but a "lump of metal that may have been a refrigerator." They took this news more courageously than I would ever have thought possible.

Then John drove to our place. We waited and waited for his call. An hour and 15 minutes later he confirmed that our house stood undamaged, along with our cabin and two outbuildings. It was far, far more than we had dared to hope for. We gave a silent prayer of thanks, and another for Cory and Linda and our other neighbors who were not nearly so fortunate.

There were 11 homes caught within the fire's perimeter. Ten were utterly consumed, including four homes within 200 yards of our house; one home lay on a treeless expanse at the bottom of a small hill and was somehow spared. Three other homes stood precariously close to obliteration when the winds began to ebb and the wildfire lost most of its fury. LaVonne and I were among those fortunate three. Lane and Sue Dukart (about whom I have written in a previous article), lost a few trees and a large pile of cordwood, but the fire stopped a couple of feet west of their house by the creek. Lee and Janie, our neighbors to the north, lost a two-stall barn and a tool shed west of their house, along with several hundred trees on the hillside above them. For our part, the fire burned around us on three sides but destroyed only a few trees.

That everyone made it out with their lives was nothing short of a miracle; LaVonne and I were not the only ones to drive through flames. No one had ever seen a wildfire move so fast. As our local fire chief later confided, "No one even thought it was possible for a fire to move that fast." If people hadn't taken the time to call their neighbors or beat on their doors--or as Cory did, to run into a neighbor's house and roust the sleeping couple out of bed--there would certainly have been deaths. The homes that burned did not just catch fire; they were utterly cremated. As it was, even the animals lived. Cattle and horses that had been set loose were all later found--shaken and a little singed, but otherwise unharmed. Even a cat that had been out on its nocturnal rounds when the fire started was found five days later, cold and half-starved beside the burned out foundation of its former home.

We were allowed back into our homes Sunday evening, less than 24 hours after the initial fire moved through. Firefighters with chainsaws, Pulaski axes and backpack fire pumps swarmed over the area, putting out hotspots and flair-ups along the perimeter. Lane and I, armed with hoes and buckets, did the same for two days, enjoying little sleep and less food. On the second day the winds returned and the fire broke out to the south, where it threatened to come roaring down the narrow, heavily forested valley that runs through the middle of our property. The unsettled air was filled with smoke and ash; even the dogs were nervous. Despite it all, LaVonne and I sat down to eat our first real meal in four days when the call came to evacuate. Our stomachs seized up by the news, the spaghetti went down the garbage disposal and we packed up and left.

The fire burned a couple hundred more acres before the winds mercifully died down and helicopters could resume making bucket drops along the fire's leading edge. On Wednesday morning we were allowed back in, this time for good. Or until the next fire. As of this writing, Monday, April 11, the Crystal Fire is 95% contained and smoke is no longer visible from our house. Which means it's time to assess what happened. And what didn't.

What caused this fire, beyond the fact that all of Colorado below 10,000 feet is experiencing the driest winter in over a decade? Unquestionably, the original 25-acre fire was set by a human, though whether it was an arsonist or merely an idiot, no one in authority is yet saying. Careless humans are most often the cause of mountain wildfires, far exceeding those fires caused by lightning or arson.


What can you do to protect your home? In some cases a lot. Though many more chains of cause-and-effect came into play than anyone will ever be able to sort out, our house was largely saved by the fact that we built on the lee side of a large hill where we had created and maintained a large "defensible space." Remove either of these two conditions and LaVonne and I would be now be among the homeless.

As John B. later explained to me, 70% of all homes destroyed in a wildfire burn down after the initial flame front moves through. Burning embers are like snowflakes, he said, and they can land pretty much anywhere: on tall grass or flammable objects under a deck, on firewood stacked next to the house, or in rain gutters clogged with pine needles. To protect your house, you have to deprive the fire of fuel in every way you can. If you simply must have a tree by your house, make certain it is at least 30 feet from any other trees.

Keep your grass short. Had we not heeded this advice our house would now be a pile of cinders. As it is, I fastidiously keep about two acres around our house and outbuildings mowed, as well as the meadow below our house. The first thing we noticed when we returned home after the first evacuation (besides the juniper trees burning nearby) was the fact that not one square inch of mowed grass was burned. In many instances the advancing fire was stopped cold by the two-foot-wide mowed trails crisscrossing the property. As a corollary, Lee and Janie's place was spared, at least in part, by the 30-or-so acres of heavily-grazed land all around their house. And the one house that was spared, despite being directly in the path of the fire, is surrounded by land that had been grazed. In every instance, mowed or grazed land proved impervious to fire, even that land through which the fire moved most violently.


One final consideration for those of you planning to build in fire country: every house in the fire's path that was built on top of a hill was destroyed, no matter how well the defensive space around it was conceived and maintained. By contrast, the fire claimed only two houses not built on a hill, most likely because they were both surrounded by large ponderosa pines. If at all possible, build where you will be at least in part protected against the force of the prevailing winds. The day may come when you'll be glad you did.

There are two factors at play here. First is the fact that heat rises, and thus gains momentum as it moves uphill. Once it gets to the top, it's hyped and hungry. The flip side is that a wildfire loses momentum in equal measure as it travels down a hill.

The second factor is the force of the wind, which does not increase, as you might imagine, in a simple linear fashion. Rather, it increases as the cube of the wind speed. What does this mean? Simply that a 20-mph wind is not twice as powerful as a 10-mph wind: it is eight times as powerful, as demonstrated by the mathematical fact that 20 x 20 x 20 = 8,000 whereas 10 x 10 x 10 = 1,000. Carry the math a little further and you'll see that a 40-mph wind packs 64 times more punch than a 10-mph wind. And now you know why hurricanes with winds over 150 mph, and tornadoes with winds in the 300-mph range are so destructive. Our anemometer recorded a 60 mph gust at just about the time the original fire broke loose. That's a powerful wind. But compared to the 90-mphplus winds on the windward side of things it was barely a fourth as strong. Factor into the wind speed the caloric value of the fuels (trees, bushes and grasses) in any given area of hillside and the geometric rate at which it is being consumed and the force of the wind takes on a truly ominous aspect.

That is part of the science involved, and a very small part at that. The dynamics of a wildfire far exceed even the most rigorous attempts to define them. Science can only draw so many objective conclusions before it descends down the path of speculation. But science can never be the final word on the subject. Anyone who has survived a wildfire cannot help but to personalize it. You come to believe the fire is alive and aware, and that each thing it consumes or ignores it does so out of cunning, or grace. This is something you feel in the depths of your being, no matter how vociferously your rational mind tries to tell you otherwise.

On a community level, the fates of everyone involved, though they may have been separate before, are now richly entwined. Your life may have been saved by someone you barely knew. Or you may find yourself opening your home to a less fortunate stranger, and doing it gladly. Because you're now part of an exclusive brotherhood where all the members are innately bound to look after one another. You don't have to love your neighbors or even like them, but it would certainly behoove you to treat them kindly and with respect.

Still, in your quiet moments, when no else is around and you are left alone with your thoughts and memories, you will not be able to avoid asking yourself why things happened the way they did. And if you are bold enough to cast aside the cold tool of science and look deep and clearly into the heart of things, you will find your answers.

Rex Ewing is the author of Power With Nature, and Crafting Log Homes Solar Style, and the newly released 2nd edition of Got Sun? Go Solar, a bestselling book that explains renewable energy options for grid-tied homes. Rex lives off the grid with his wife, LaVonne, in a hand-hewn log home in the Colorado foothills. His books can be purchased at the Countryside Bookstore or at www.
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Title Annotation:Life on the sunny side
Author:Ewing, Rex A.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jun 28, 2011
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