Record breaking fire and flood

Barbara Lawlor, Peak to Peak

If it wasn’t one thing, it was another.

In the beginning of the year, a cold snap froze everything; in the summer, a hot dry spell burned up a record number of houses; and in the fall, an epic flood set the record for most rain in a single event in Boulder County and caused the destruction and evacuation of three mountain towns and the closure of most major canyon roads. Weather was the perpetrator. The land, the buildings, the wildlife, and the people were the victims.

It wasn’t just the weather that wreaked havoc with mountain residents. In at least three different occasions, campers were attacked by other campers wielding large knives. One of those attacks resulted in the death of a county teenager.

Early in the year, Coal Creek Canyon and Boulder County residents got a reprieve from their battle to deny the proposal to enlarge Gross Reservoir with a four-year-long construction project. Boulder County Commissioners denied a Inter-agency Government Agreement to move forward with the project. A series of public hearings spotlighted the public’s adamant opposition to the project and the expansion efforts were stopped… for now. The commissioners said they would wait for Environmental Impact Study.

At the end of January, below zero temperatures dropped on the mountains like an iceberg, sending folks to Ace for heaters, thawers, pumps, and pipes. Second Street resident Suzanne Thomas watched the creek rise six inches in a small amount of time after freezing and thawing for a few days. The water seeped into her house and Nederland Fire Protection District firefighters used chainsaws to cut chunks of ice out of the yard and relieve the buildup.

After a summer of being closed to campers, hikers, and horseback riders because of a huge forest service mitigation effort, West Magnolia Road was reopened to traffic and camping and hikers. People were shocked at the clear cut remains of tree trunks, piles of slash and exposed hillsides. It didn’t seem to slow down the recreating public, who headed to West Mag to enjoy the camping sites and trails. The Sundance Stable was able to resume horseback adventures.

A wildland fire erupted in Russell Gulch, sparked by an abandoned campfire; Timberline Fire Protection District firefighters prepared to hike up the hill in the dark, nasty night because the fire was headed into a bunch of unburned fuel. A scout helicopter reported it could wait until morning so firefighters sat tight and then moved in and zapped it. The early-season wildland fire would prove to be a precursor of things to come.

When a wildland fire was sparked by shooters at the Left Hand Canyon off road recreation area, the County banned the shooting of weapons, which led Big Springs residents to breathe a sigh of relief. The Magnolia Road shooting area has long been an area of contention and residents had been asking for a ban for years. The ban prohibited the discharge of firearms, air rifles, or gas guns for one year, allowing a FS task force to come up with comprehensive sustainable plan. Neighbors maintain that the range should be shut down permanently, naming pollution, toxic waste, discarded bullets near campfires, and danger to hikers and nearby neighbors.

At the annual Peak to Peak Healthy Communities Project Community Champion Award Ceremony, Dale Porter was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award. Awards also went to Ann Sherman, Chris Current, Margaret May, Tracy and Alan Brewer, Teresa Bradley, Brent Warren, Diane Maggiore of the Nederland Community Closet, Justine Irwin of the Nederland Area Historic Society, Carole Handler, the Nederland Community Center, TEENS, Inc., Randy Lee, and Uma Gurung, for their outstanding work to make Nederland a better place to live.

The Nederland Fire Protection District celebrated 100 years of service to the town and surrounding areas and were presented with a plaque of recognition for their work for the community.

An April snowstorm that lingered on and off for two and a half weeks brought in over 24 inches of snow; of course it happened just as Eldora Mountain Resort closed for the season. The Boulder Valley School District did not call for a snow day and the school had indoor recesses.

This was one weather event that was good news. The snowpack on April 1 had been at 70 percent and by April 22, it was 90 percent, which changed the overall snowpack picture for the year, breaking last year’s severe drought. The rain, however, would morph into the enemy by the end of the summer.

On May 16, the Mutual of Omaha Bank in Nederland was robbed by a guy with a knit hat, scarf, big wool sweater and orange sunglasses. Probably in his 20s, the man walked into the bank and demanded all the money in the drawer. There was no apparent weapon, no force was threatened, and he left on foot. Although officers found the back pack shown in video tapes, they never found the guy.

With wildfire and mitigation still the buzz word for the summer, Nederland Saws and Slaws begin their summer work with training classes for chain saws. Actually, it was the potential sawyers that took the classes, and it was a good thing, because the volunteer group was busy all summer, sawing, dragging, chipping and becoming a solid, experienced team.

The end of May, graduations prevailed as senior students left their high schools behind. Gilpin High School had 15 graduates; Chinook West had five graduates and Nederland High School had 31 graduates taking their leave from childhood, and going on to their adult futures.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, an altercation at Gordon Gulch resulted in two people being knifed, one with abdominal gashes and the other with a cut throat. The victims were taken to the Nederland Police Station where they were choppered out in serious condition. Both of them survived. The suspect was apprehended in a dumpster in Boulder and arrested and charged with two counts of attempted murder.

Shortly after that, in the first week of June, another Gordon Gulch camper and a passenger driving to town to get a steak for dinner before moving on, lost control of his pickup truck and drove up the canyon wall near Sugarloaf Road, rolled onto its top and killed the driver, TK Sundvor. The passenger was extricated from the crushed vehicle and treated.

And then the summer air began to dry the fuels and the wind picked up. Timberline Fire Protection District firefighters put out a campfire that escaped its pit, using their new compressed air foam technology. The beginning of June was expected to break heat wave records and fire departments were advising the residents to be vigilant. Fire bans expected to be put in place and it wasn’t soon enough for those living in wildland forest areas.

Sure enough, in the second week of June, the heat, drought, and wind ignited the worst fire in Colorado history in the residential area of Black Forest near Colorado Springs. Four hundred and thirty homes were destroyed, 40,000 residents evacuated; 1,130 firefighters were on the line including a team from the NFPD captained by Ryan Roberts, who said his group saved 12 houses and one dog. NFPD Captain Roberts and firefighter Dave Femmer grabbed a dog they heard barking and then were forced to run. The crew spent four days in tents and were filled with misery and then pride. Roberts noted that the mitigated homes were easily saved.

Fire bans went into effect in the entire mountain area of Boulder County until hazardous conditions were reduced.

The new Nederland Waste Water plant was opened, the old sewer ponds drained, and the recycled waste water treatment plant was welcomed with a celebration. After decades of sewer ponds taking up Barker Reservoir shoreline, the first steps to a gateway park were completed.

A camping party turned to tragedy when a teen ager loaded with moonshine and mind-altering drugs stabbed and killed another teenager from New Vista High School. Ten students had been camping at the end of Ridge Road when 19-year-old Spencer Crawford killed Angus Gaudin, 17. Crawford was found and arrested. The incident introduced a new dynamic, a new dangerous element to camping which involves the challenges of adolescent issue revolving around drugs. Crawford was charged with second degree murder.

Early in July, a Coal Creek Canyon fire which erupted after a previous lightning strike destroyed a Lillis home, which was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived. Neighbors put out spot fires ignited by blowing sparks while firefighter kept the blaze contained to the house and nearby vehicles.

A wildland fire on Dakota Hill was visible from TFPD Station 2 and firefighters watched as helicopters with buckets promptly went after the flames. Any fire was being taken very seriously and air attacks have proven to be the best way to douse fires in hard-to-get-to areas.

Fire danger lived with residents night and day. The area was a tinder box and people were exceptionally careful. The Town of Ned cancelled the annual fireworks display and residents took the cancellation in stride, coming up with a full day of events in town.

Saws and Slaws were hard at work, mitigating areas in Big Springs, Sugarloaf, and Valley View.

On the Fourth of July local fire districts showed up for the reincarnated water barrel contest. The firefighters had a picnic and a much deserved day away from the stress of putting out fires. A team of TFPD firefighters won the water contest.

The Timberline crew had barely recovered from the event when they were called to a South Beaver Creek lightning strike that was once again drowned by choppers with water buckets.

In Nederland Municipal Court, Judge Lisa Hamilton-Friedman announced her resignation to take a job in Washington, D.C. TJ Cole became the interim judge and His Honor David Gloss was chosen to be the permanent Nederland Municipal Court Judge. Gloss also works for the Gilpin County courts.

Finally there was enough moisture to rescind the fire ban in August. People who had been struggling with drought issues relished the watering agent from the sky, giving their hoses a break and watching the rez rise.

A new Nederland Police Department law enforcement officer was hired. Chuck Geiger was signed on as a part time patrol officer.

Every summer there are climbing accidents, fallen climbers who need to be rescued, evacuated from their landing sites. In July, two climbers were injured in the same accident, closing the canyon as the victims had to be carried across the creek in a technical evacuation.

At the end of August, NPD chief Jake Adler resigned, saying he wanted to spend time with family. He has been in law enforcement for 14 years and his plans for the future could include running for Gilpin County Sheriff. Sgt. Larry Johns was appointed interim chief.

After a few weeks of moisture laden skies and intermittent rainstorms, the skies opened up in the second week of September, saturating the ground and starting creeks where there had been trickles. Just when it seemed that the land couldn’t handle any more moisture, everything broke loose on Wednesday, September 15, wiping out Jamestown, Coal Creek Canyon, Boulder Canyon, Left Hand, and Lyons. A group of 85 fifth graders at a Cal-Wood educational retreat were stranded until National Guard Black Hawk helicopters evacuated them.

Most of the canyon highways were washed away in places, isolating the small mountain towns. When Highway 7 and Highway 34 were closed, Estes Park was cut off from business at its most profitable month of the year.

Businesses along the river were flooded and closed. A new historical high water mark was registered. The average rainfall for September is 1.7 inches; by the end of the storm, 12.3 inches had fallen—so far the wettest month in Boulder County history. 2,500 people were evacuated in Lyons and the flood became a Type 2 Incident with Federal Management Teams taking over and FEMA setting up aid stations.

Almost all municipal events were cancelled, including Nederland’s Miners’ Day celebration. Mountain residents could not use Boulder Canyon, Fourmile Canyon, or Sunshine Canyon for a while; Coal Creek Canyon and Left Hand Canyon were also closed due to road washouts. National Guard troops guarded the barricades. A Disaster Relief Center was established at the Nederland Community Center, with various agencies manning desks to offer help to those impacted by the flood.

When the floodwaters receded, the recovery work began with huge trucks of fill heading to the washed-out roads. Once the roads opened, traffic delays for construction workers was common.

At this time, a major Nederland drug bust took place at a residence on Jefferson St. Eight suspects were arrested, the result of a Boulder County Drug Task Force undercover team’s ongoing investigation. The team confiscated 70.6 pounds of marijuana and $21,761 in cash.

On November 11, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and State Senator Jeanne Nicholson of Gilpin County attended a Coal Creek Canyon reopening ceremony where the firefighters of the area were praised for their recovery efforts, although many residents still could not get across the river to their homes.

When the water calmed down, the winds ravaged the town, blowing down the trees and knocking the power out, a thing that became a habit in the next month, until in December a standing room-only crowd showed up for a Nederland Board of Trustees meeting and asked the trustees to consider switching power companies.

When Officer Darragh O’Nuallain resigned from the NPD, heading back home to Ireland, the department was short an officer and looking for a new chief; so Boulder County deputies had to cover Nederland during the officer shortage. At the end of December, candidate James Matheney of Warren, Michigan, was given the nod for the Chief’s position by a hiring committee. He now has to go before the Nederland Board of Trustees to be named to the position.

After a month of warm weather, the temps dropped the week before Eldora Mountain Resort was supposed to open and the snowmakers scrambled to use every minute below freezing to work. The EMR opened on time with more runs open than usual, thanks to new snowmaking equipment.

Riverside, a teeny town, outside of Raymond, asked for help from Saws and Slaws to clear out large trees that had fallen into the stream that flooded the residents and threatened to become a spring thaw hazard. The people who stayed ended up building their own bridges and helping each other.

On the first day of December, a tanker carrying 4,000 gallons of diesel rolled on its side, spilling fuel into Boulder Creek. Hazmat crews kept the diesel spill out of the water, but the canyon had only one lane for the next two weeks while crews worked on cleaning up the fuel.

In the weeks before the New Year, the winds kicked up the Reservoir waters but snow was skimpy. It was cold, but not dangerously so. Skiers wound their way up the canyon toward Eldora and then down again. The Town of Nederland put up holiday lights that gave downtown a cheerful glow in the darkness. The Solstice came and went, the days grew longer, and another year has begun, another year filled with joyful and sad surprises and all the wonders and hazards of living in the mountains.

It is how we deal with them that makes a good year rather than a bad year.

Bring it on, 2014.
tree in sun

another windmill

more clear

hoses col sprgs


garage sale

destroyed condo copy

close yup on flames

coolest picture


bridge and cabin in creek

bes, nederland, SO

blsr canyon

anaother very cool shot

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.