Officials: Olde Stage Fire 100% contained

Officials: Olde Stage Fire 100% contained

8 January 2009

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USA — Despite fast-moving flames that scorched more than 1,400 acres and put hundreds of firefighters in danger, residents and officials were thankful Thursday night that the Olde Stage Fire didn’t inflict more damage on Boulder County.

By the time the fire was deemed 100 percent contained at 8 p.m. Thursday, it had chased more than 1,300 families from their homes and destroyed two houses and several barns and outbuildings. But with no deaths and only three minor injuries reported, officials said it could have been much worse in the populated area north of Boulder.

“I was very emotional when I was able to see in the daylight how bad the fire could have been,” Jay Stalnacker, Boulder County’s fire management officer, said late Thursday. “It was very satisfying to see that we saved a lot of homes and didn’t get any firefighters killed. I felt pretty proud of what we accomplished.”

All families were able to go back to their homes by 6:30 p.m. Thursday, and all roads were open, although some flames were still visible on the top of Dakota Ridge. Those small hot spots and others were to be monitored by 20 firefighters overnight. They will give way to new crews early Friday morning, extending a long couple of days for emergency workers.

“The effort that went into suppressing this fire last night was exhausting and downright heroic,” Sheriff Joe Pelle said. “The firefighters did save a number of homes. … The fact that no one was killed or seriously injured in a wind-driven event like this is miraculous.”

Vladimir and Eva Nejezchleb saw how much more devastating the fire could have been. The couple have lived in the same house on Olde Stage Road for more than 40 years and were able to return home Thursday night. As they looked over the deck to the ravine where the blaze roared through, they saw scorched earth just steps from their home.

But the blaze stayed away, and after a few minutes of searching, the couple found their two cats, Auto and Nette, safe in their house.

“We weren’t really petrified because we had been through this once before,” Eva said, recalling the 1990 Olde Stage Fire that burned 10 homes. “We saw that the ridge was burning, but we were able to get out. We’re just grateful to the firefighters who risked their lives to save our homes.”

Although Boulder County sheriff’s officials said they called more than 11,400 homes within a mile radius of the fire’s path — telling them to leave — sheriff’s Cmdr. Phil West said an assessment made Thursday indicated only 1,300 to 1,400 families evacuated overnight.

Evacuation orders were lifted neighborhood by neighborhood throughout most of the day Thursday, as more than 75 firefighters worked to contain the blaze.

The Olde Stage Fire began as two fires about a mile apart Wednesday afternoon and combined to create one giant fire scene.

A downed electrical pole at Rocky Mountain Llamas, at Neva Road and North 45th Street, burned a house to the ground and sparked a fast-traveling grassfire.

It eventually merged with a separate blaze that began along Olde Stage Road. The cause of that fire still wasn’t clear Thursday, West said.

Some homeowners, officials said, worked alongside firefighters to remove debris around their homes and spray down lawns and buildings using garden hoses.

Firefighters intentionally burned a large portion of land along U.S. 36 to prevent flames from cresting hills and entering residential areas, Pelle said.

“A lot of really good things happened (Wednesday) night,” he said.

Pelle said high winds Wednesday that made it “darn near impossible to physically fight the fire” had died down considerably Thursday.

Still, winds in the area of the fire had sustained speeds of 25 mph during the morning and peak gusts of 40 mph, Pelle said, preventing a helicopter from dropping water on hot spots.

Sheriff’s officials said more than 25 agencies from across the state — totaling about 250 people — worked together to fight the fire and manage evacuations Thursday. The combined costs of labor, equipment and damage from the blaze are still being tallied, they said.

County Commissioner Ben Pearlman signed a local disaster emergency declaration, the first step toward asking for state and federal disaster money, county spokeswoman Barb Halpin said.

Boulder County should eventually be reimbursed for some costs by the Emergency Fire Fund, Halpin said, which counties pay into each year as a form of disaster insurance.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency could end up paying 75 percent of all the costs for fighting the fire, Halpin said — but that process could take up to two years to complete.

Homeowners like Boulder County resident Rob Dietrich, who returned to find his house and his chickens in one piece, said they were grateful for the efforts that saved their homes.

Dietrich erected a hand-painted sign along Niwot Road on Thursday afternoon with a simple message: “Thank you fire and rescue.”

The sign sat a few hundred yards from the most eastern portion of the fire’s path, near the Haystack Mountain Golf Course at 55th Street and Niwot Road.

“The power in the house went out, and I went outside and saw sparks,” Dietrich said. “It got the whole back of the property.”

Dietrich helped load 13 of his own horses, a bulldog named Bruce and six horses belonging to a neighbor before obeying an evacuation order, he said. Only several chickens were left behind with an open gate in case they needed to escape, he said.

Neighbors in the area “rallied really well,” he said, and helped one another pack animals out of the rural area.

“Everyone was calm, and we had plenty of time and resources to get out,” he said

Fire numbers

Acres burned: 1,400 within a 3,600-acre area

Containment: 100 percent

Evacuated: All residents are allowed to return home

Structures lost: Two houses totally lost, one house partially damaged and several outbuildings destroyed

Injuries: 3 minor injuries reported (one police officer and two firefighters)


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