Leif Steiner owned a 3,000-square-foot house on Melvina Hill Rd., deep in the quiet of Fourmile Canyon in the Boulder, Colo., foothills, but on the morning of Sept. 6 -- Monday of Labor Day weekend -- he was sleeping outside in a tent. The founder and creative director of Moxie Sozo, a design and advertising company that has worked with outdoor industry clients including GoLite and Sierra Designs, Steiner had been hiking Colorado’s 14,000 peaks with his two sons that weekend, and says he simply enjoyed sleeping outside. He woke up and wandered into the house to take a shower. Ten minutes later, he was running for his life.
“There were walls of flame 10 stories high 50 yards away from the house,” he said. “The heat felt like a blast furnace. Tree after tree exploded as the wall of flame advanced. The fire and wind roared like a jet engine.” Steiner and his girlfriend grabbed a few things and ran to his car, still wearing slippers, and drove away. Behind him, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history was incinerating all of his worldly possessions.
“If I had slept 10 minutes later, if I had been in the shower 10 minutes longer, I would have been dead,” Steiner told SNEWS®.
Stories like Steiner’s began to be the norm for Boulder residents, many of whom work in the outdoor and sports industry. While few were as close to the fire as Steiner, most were left uncertain about their homes and waiting for news for days on end. The fire began around 10 a.m. on Sept. 6 when, according to authorities, gusty winds picked up embers from a fire pit that a homeowner (and volunteer firefighter) had thought was extinguished days before. In less than an hour, it was out of control as the flames raged up Fourmile and Sunshine canyons. By nightfall, it had engulfed more than 6,000 acres, destroying houses in its path -- even those whose owners had tried to mitigate against fire -- in a matter of minutes.
Firefighters saved the town of Gold Hill by back burning swaths of land to take fuel away from the approaching inferno, but they were mostly helpless as the high winds grounded air operations and the fire burned full force at night. Since the fire was burning through the Boulder neighborhoods closest to nature, it was displacing many folks who work in the outdoor industry.
About the same time Steiner was running for his life, longtime outdoor writer and editor Clyde Soles and his wife, Cindy Foley, were moving as fast as they could toward the fire, hoping to save their cats and any personal items they could grab from their home in Boulder’s Carriage Hills neighborhood. The only problem was they were 1,500 miles away in Washington, D.C. Instead of waking to a wall of flames, the couple found out about the fire on Twitter and Facebook, five minutes before they were about to take off on a flight home.
“I called a friend who got our cats out and then we didn’t know anything for four hours. We started to see the smoke in the air when we were over Nebraska,” Soles told us.
After landing in Denver, they drove home watching the smoke cloud billow over Boulder. The fire department blocked the road to their neighborhood and told them they could not check on their house. There was very little information. By Thursday, Sept. 9, the fire was only 20 percent contained, North Boulder was on evacuation alert, and high winds were threatening to push the flames into downtown.
More than 3,000 residents who lived in the foothills were evacuated. “I grabbed my skis, boots, computer, cat. My wife loaded wedding photos, our evac box of documents, quilts,” said Andy Bigford, editor and publisher of Peaks magazine and former editor-in-chief of Ski magazine. “We’ve been evacuated a handful of times in the past. This was by far the most serious, with our home just outside the fire perimeter.”
In the Boulder Heights neighborhood, Geoff O’Keeffe, vice president of global sourcing at American Recreation Products, and his wife, Sandy Sincek, were at home when the call came to evacuate. “We have lived here for 11 years and prepared to evac about seven times -- car loaded, pointed out of driveway, boots on… This was the first time we had to go. We could see the smoke coming. I thought it would burn the house,” he said. “But it’s part of living in the mountains. You have to just accept it.”
While some residents lost their homes, others, like Soles, Bigford and O’Keeffe, found themselves evacuated with no idea what had happened to their homes and no idea of when they could go back. Fortunately, the immediate support from the community rivaled the intensity of the fire.
“As soon as I got into town, an hour after the fire started, I got a call from (GoLite owners Kim and Demetri Coupounas) making sure I was all right and asking if I needed anything. They called me even before my own mom,” said Steiner.
Using the #boulderfire hashtag on Twitter, Boulderites were volunteering services, food, shelter and supplies to victims and firefighters (nine of whom lost their own homes as they battled the flames). Outside PR in California sent boxes of GU samples. The Boulder Rock Club offered a month of free membership to those affected. Sol Sunguard in Seattle shipped lip balm for firefighters. Mountain Hardwear’s Paige Boucher, who grew up in Boulder and lost a home in the 1991 fires in Oakland, Calif., was preparing to send clothes to those who lost their homes from her office in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
SmartWool’s director of merchandising C.J. King, who lives in the Sugarloaf neighborhood, had been in town and wasn’t able to evacuate his home when the fire started. A neighbor called him and went into his house to grab passports, laptops and some personal effects.
Over the week, as King and his wife waited to find out the fate of their house, his wife was following the relief effort on Twitter, and learned that the firefighters needed bananas, lip balm and socks. King and his coworkers put 75 pairs of wool socks in a box and drove them over to the Boulder Reservoir where more than 550 firefighters from across the country were staging.
“There was a tremendous outpouring of support from our company and the outdoor community,” King told SNEWS.
By Friday, evacuees were able to return home, but the fire had destroyed 166 homes, making it the most destructive to private property and most costly in Colorado history.
“You never realize how much of your emotional fabric is tied up in the items you surround yourself with. My life feels like a blackboard that has been erased,” said Steiner, who bemoaned the loss of tents, backpacks, other outdoor gear he used to spend weekends out in the wild with his family and especially personal mementos such as a note given to him by a Bedouin in the Sahara. The bitter irony is that Steiner has spearheaded groups of artists and designers who have raised funds to help victims of the recent earthquake in Haiti and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. “But I don’t think I have the bandwidth in my head right now to do something similar for this fire that has affected me.”
Despite the outpouring of goodwill, many companies and individuals found it confusing or difficult to donate time and products to people like Steiner who lost everything.
Kristin Bush, human relations manager at American Recreation Products, saw the firefighters at the reservoir right across from her office, but could not get an easy answer on how to get them ARP products, such as tents and sleeping bags, that she could tell they needed.
“It’s taking so long to get information. I would love to just drive over and drop stuff off,” she said.
Longtime industry sales rep Ian Reid, co-owner of Redline Sports Group, felt the same way and spearheaded his own efforts. “I was listening to helicopters going right over my office and just felt like I had to do something,” he said. “So I just decided to do whatever I could do and start rallying the industry. I started making phone calls to my clients and buddies in the industry, and everyone wanted to help and it just started growing.”
Reid said the volunteer organizations were absolutely overwhelmed. He had outdoor industry brands that wanted to donate, but couldn’t get answers on how to make it happen. Eventually, he learned that companies need to donate to a non-profit, so he partnered with the local chapter of the United Way, a 501(c)3, to facilitate outdoor industry support for victims. He is currently working with over 20 manufacturers -- including Rab, Sanuk, Timbuk2, Salomon, Prana, Mountain Hardwear, Teko and I/O Bio -- with more signing on each day. He says the Outdoor Industry Association plans to make member companies aware of his efforts as well.
“These people have lost absolutely everything,” he said. “I have a buddy who lost his house and was walking around with borrowed underwear.”
And there may be opportunities for outdoor companies to do more than just donate gear.
“As you can imagine, most Boulder residents are huge outdoor enthusiasts. Most if not all have lost a lifetime full of camping and outdoor gear,” said GoLite’s Kim Coupounas. “Most people who’ve lost their homes are undoubtedly insured, but we could make it simple for these folks to re-outfit themselves by offering all victims a pro deal, including pro deals from both retailers and manufacturers.”
Reid said the industry can learn from and build on the experience of the Fourmile fire, which was deemed 100 percent contained on Sept. 13 even as firefighters were rushing north to Loveland, Colo., where a new fire had burned 900 acres and two homes over the weekend.
“I hope that we get enough product to help the victims of this fire, but we also have another fire in Loveland,” said Reid. “There are other catastrophes all over the country. I hope to establish some type of industry partnership that can be ready to act when relief effort is needed anywhere. We don’t need to establish a 501(c)3 within the industry, but it would be fantastic to have the ability to respond when catastrophe strikes in a local market and rally the troops so that we can find the proper non-profit within the area that could distribute and warehouse the products and get them out to the people who need them.”
For details on how to make donations through Ian Reid’s partnership with the United Way, contact him at 303-720-1917 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Product donations, such as socks, shoes, toiletries, fleece blankets, jackets and insulation, can be shipped to: Fourmile Canyon Victims Relief, 767 East South Boulder Rd., Louisville, CO 80027.