GOLD HILL, Colo. (AP) - Fire rushed over a Gold Hill ridge Monday and chased Chris Finn's crew of volunteer firefighters — his neighbors and friends — through the small town to seek shelter down another hillside.
The flames rushed to within about an eighth of a mile of the old town area, where Finn's family restaurant is a popular gathering place and historic buildings are snuggled along Main Street.
"I thought it was last time I would see Gold Hill," he said, emotion catching at his words.
"That fire was chasing us," the fire chief of the Gold Hill Fire Protection District said Thursday, recalling flames that stretched 20 to 30 feet skyward.
The wind shifted direction and a tanker dropped its load right outside of town and that, Finn said, was the deciding moment that spared Gold Hill and its volunteer firefighters from the Fourmile Canyon Fire, the most destructive fire in state history.
The volunteer chief said he is worried about residents who are trying to sneak back into evacuated areas.
"My big message I have to get out to my citizens is please don't come back until the sheriff asks you to," he said, adding that those who are sneaking in are disrupting firefighters' ability to work.
Finn's story was cut short Thursday, though, as his gaze fell on a plume of smoke outside of town and the crew hustled back to work.
Finn credits the wind and a tanker for turning the fire back from the mountain town on Monday, but Jay Stalnacker, fire management officer for Boulder County, sees things a little differently.
"These guys saved this town," he said.
Inside the perimeter of the Fourmile Canyon Fire, more than 500 firefighters were working Thursday in anticipation of worsening fire conditions brought on by higher temperatures, lower humidity and winds expected to reach up to 50 mph, increasing the danger of the fire jumping firelines to both the north and south.
As of Thursday afternoon, the fire was 40 to 45 percent contained, according to the Boulder County Sheriff's Office.
Firefighter Rob Bozeman said Thursday morning that the Fourmile Canyon Fire was aggressive.
Stalnacker said crews had difficulty reaching some homes at the end of long, winding driveways wide enough only for a single vehicle.
Some homes did not have much defensible space around them, or had flammable materials nestled against the structures. He noted one home on Wild Turkey Drive that was burned to its foundation with only the rubble of its interior left. The charred remains of trees stood precariously near the foundation, but a children's playset and a pile of firewood away from the house remained untouched by the fire.
"We were unable to access this area three days ago," Stalnacker said. "There was so much heat and fire."
Downed power lines that were dropped across dirt roads were still live on Monday, adding the danger of electrocution for first responders, who also met evacuating residents fleeing the fire.
For those crews protecting structures, it wasn't always a wall of flames rushing up a hill that posed the challenges. Embers floating through the air and igniting new blazes, and flames creeping down hills in the grasses and finding their way under the foundations of homes also were dangers. He said crews would sometimes have to protect one structure while they were helpless to protect a neighboring home.
"It is very frustrating and sad for firefighters because we were struggling," Stalnacker said, adding the intensity and speed of the Fourmile Canyon Fire drained Boulder County of firefighting resources in the first six hours. State and federal resources have been added to flesh out the army of firefighters on the ground.
A crew from South Dakota worked Thursday along Wall Street throughout the day clearing brush, trees and flammable materials away from structures that have survived the fire so far. Pierre Blue Thunder said the crew had cleared debris away from four homes and still had plenty of work ahead. Other homes along the mountain road were devastated, revealing some of the deep mine shafts that were behind them. Vehicles were burned to husks and houses were burned to their footprints. The fire seemed to arbitrarily demolish one home while leaving a neighbor's untouched.
Rust-colored fire retardant dropped in the burn perimeter dusted portions of still-standing treelines in Sunshine Canyon, where acres of the hillsides are charred to ashes.
Stalnacker said unburned areas are still part of the problem as wind and heat can mix to encourage the flames to take off again.
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