Survival tales, mitigation questions linger as Fourmile Fire rages

BOULDER — As firefighters continued to battle the raging Fourmile Fire Tuesday and evacuees relived harrowing survival tales, politicians were already questioning wildfire mitigation efforts in the area and seeking future funding.

The Fourmile Fire west of Boulder Tuesday morning. (Photo by John Tomasic)

“We have done a lot in this area over the last couple of years to provide fire mitigation, clearing [vegetation] around properties, so we’ll see what the results are,” Gov. Bill Ritter said during a press conference Tuesday.

Ritter took a tour of Fourmile Canyon on Tuesday afternoon and issued an emergency disaster declaration authorizing $5 million in state aid for firefighting costs. He said the state will seek additional funds from the federal government if necessary.

Michael Sakowske, a potter who lost his home in the blaze, was aware of fire mitigation measures but said that more work was necessary: “They said they were doing fire mitigation, but it didn’t look like they had come through my backyard.”

Sen. Mark Udall praised quick work by the governor and the authorization of FEMA funds, but he also said the fire is a clear indication the full U.S. Senate needs to pass his National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act, which would direct federal resources to fire-prone areas ravaged by the mountain pine bark beetle epidemic.

“I will not rest in my efforts to secure additional funding and support to reduce the wildfire threats from dry, dense trees along the Front Range and throughout Colorado — as well as respond to the bark beetle threats,” Udall said in a release.

Sakowske said there was little time to react when the massive wildfire flared up Monday morning.

“I woke up to my neighbor pounding on my door. I ran outside and I could hear explosions and I felt the heat as ashes fell from the sky,” he said of the fire in Sunshine Canyon where his home was located. “Living up in the mountains, I’ve had my experience with fire over the years, but I could tell it was different this time.”

After problems with his family and the law, Sakowske said he came to Colorado to “start anew” 16 years ago and since then has been leading a peaceful and modest life making pottery in his old mining cabin. “I started over here and it was a good start, but now I’m going to have to start over again.”

As of Tuesday evening, dozens of structures had been destroyed and 3,500 Boulder County residents had been forced from 1,000 homes since the Fourmile Fire started Monday morning. More than 7,000 acres had burned.

Nine firefighters have lost their homes in the blaze, but there have been no injuries or deaths due to the fire, which was still burning out of control Tuesday evening. The fire may have been caused by a vehicle crashing into a propane tank, according to a 911 tape released Tuesday.

Monday night, the Red Cross provided emergency shelter and food for evacuees at the Coors Event Center at the University of Colorado. Thirteen evacuees checked in Monday night and another 11 checked in Tuesday, according to volunteer shelter manager David Turner.

The Coors Event Center lacks hot water, but transportation has been provided to the CU Recreation Center so that evacuees have access to showers.

“Here the evacuees are receiving everything they need as far as necessities go,” Turner said. “The only thing lacking is information on what’s happening up the canyon.”

The Red Cross shelter was scheduled to move to the YMCA at 2850 Mapleton. The majority of evacuees are staying with friends and family instead of relying on emergency response shelters.

Red Cross mental health volunteer David Root, a retired licensed therapist, says that along with basic necessities, evacuees also often need help handling the immense stress of loss and shock.

Although most needs of the evacuees are met, one problem that Root recognizes is that evacuees cannot bring their pets into the shelter. “In times of immense stress, people want to be with their pets to calm themselves down.”

More than 200 firefighters from at least 35 local, regional and national agencies were working to contain the fire late Tuesday.

Sakowske, who does not have insurance, says that while he grabbed his most important documents and photos, he wishes he had grabbed his pottery wheel. “It’s hard to think what’s really important in a situation like that. [The pottery wheel] was the last thing my father left me before he died … But at the very least I still have my hands, I can replace a wheel.”

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