Taming a Tiger

By Gosnell, Ron | American Forests, September-October 1989 | Go to article overview

Taming a Tiger


Gosnell, Ron, American Forests


"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. …

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