Colorado wildfire devours futuristic engineering, historical treasures

Colorado wildfire devours futuristic engineering, historical treasures

29 April 2012

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USA — Andy Hoover, grandson of President Herbert Hoover, built his home in a pine forest above Denver to withstand a wildfire — or so he thought.

In a matter of minutes, flames overtook it, and took with them irreplaceable pieces of memorabilia he was planning to move to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa.

“We built this thinking that it couldn’t burn,” Hoover said, gesturing toward thick, specially designed concrete walls that remained largely intact. “We put things in it that were priceless.”

And that makes how the Lower North Fork fire started all the more galling. The decision to light a controlled fire during a record dry spell was a travesty, he said. And now, he is worried that the state might not adequately compensate him and his neighbors for their losses, including the loss of life.

According to state law, the state will pay a maximum of $600,000 to all claimants. The combined assessed value of the of 23 houses that burned was $11 million.

Because of what happened March 26, Andy and Jeanie Hoovers’ retirement dreams have been destroyed. Their close friend, Ann Appel, 51, and neighbors Sam and Linda Lucas were killed.

The most devastating loss was not what can be rebuilt but what can never be replaced.

There were the gold-inlaid flintlock dueling pistols in an antique carrying case, his grandfather’s smoking pipe, a classic New England rifle, and bookcases crammed with the heart of his grandfather’s book collection, including such historical leather-bound books as a 1556 mining text written in Latin. Like Andy Hoover, Herbert Hoover had been a mining engineer, and he translated the prized book into English.

The Hoovers lost keepsakes that belied popular perceptions of what his grandfather was like; perceptions fueled by his legacy of being president when the stock market collapsed in 1929, bringing in the Great Depression.

Always a highly principled man, Herbert Hoover used the family’s own china service in the White House, for example, because he didn’t think the country should have to pay for his dishware.

Jeanie Hoover held soot-coated fragments of china the former president purchased in China during a trip just after the Boxer Rebellion concluded in the early 1900s, pieces recovered from the ashes of their home. One piece had been from the Imperial Palace in Beijing, Andy Hoover said.

At one point on the evening of March 26, Hoover peered from outside the house through a large opening in the floor into a space where his library once had been. Glowing red-and-orange flames were spitting up through the opening. It was a crushing emotional blow.

“It burned,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s gone.”

In the rubble of twisted black metal and blackened debris behind his home, where Hoover once worked in a 1,000-square-foot shop equipped with an assortment of power woodworking equipment, benches and tools, was a large cabinet with many small drawers.

Andy Hoover spent much of his free time — after retiring from a career working at mining and engineering firms — building 18th-century-style furniture. He was just beginning to refurbish the cabinet used by his grandfather to store fishing gear.

Two bottles of brandy with a Napoleonic seal dated 1818, previously owned by his grandfather, were in a hickory wine cellar that was stocked with more than 100 bottles.

The Hoovers bought their 46-acre plot of mountain property set on a small knoll with a majestic view in 1995. They were thrilled that they could see 270 degrees around them without seeing any lights at night.

It was a magnificent vista at 8,294 feet in elevation with layers of mountains surrounding them. Andy Hoover painted marks on trees.

“‘This is what Pike’s Peak will look like from your kitchen window,'” he told Jeanie.

He was not naive about the risk of living in the wilderness, nor were his neighbors. There was always the chance that a wildfire could obliterate his home and, in fact, he and Jeanie abandoned their dream of building a log cabin after the 2000 Buffalo Creek wildfire.

Andy Hoover, who studied architecture and engineering at Yale University and the Colorado School of Mines , designed the house of concrete, metal and rock like a gigantic fire-proof safe.

“We were no klutzes when it came to fire,” Andy Hoover said. “We did everything we could think of.”

He initially cut down 56 trees around the house and hundreds more later. Most wildfires spread through the lower branches, so he hired the sons of his neighbors Scott and Ann Appel to cut any branches below 14 feet on this property.

The Hoovers put a 24,000-gallon water tank on their land just below their home, a 1,200-gallon cistern in the house and a 1,000-gallon water tank in a shed. They hadn’t filled the largest tank this year because it wasn’t yet the fire season, he said.

He bought a scanner and binoculars. Sometimes, Andy Hoover would spot wildfires from a wooden deck hugging a ridge in his back yard before Colorado State Forest Service employees did.

But for all of Andy Hoover’s precautions a wildfire revved by 79 mph gusts of wind made quick work of his home, forcing him to blast through his garage door to escape.

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