Editor’s note: As of March 31, 2022, containment of the NICAR Fire was at 100%, according to the Boulder Office of Emergency Management.
This story was last updated at 9.55 a.m on March 28, 2022.
The South Boulder wildfire that erupted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) amid near-record temperatures on Saturday, March 26, was another wake-up call for Boulder County residents about the dangers of living in a place prone to wildfires as climate change intensifies.
The flames burned about 190 acres of city-owned open space in and around NCAR’s popular hiking trails, and less than a half-mile from the Devil’s Thumb neighborhood. During the peak of the fire, authorities ordered the evacuation of an area that included 19,000 people. Some were still reeling from the aftermath of the Marshall Fire that had struck only a few miles away. A mix of fire-mitigation work, weather and sheer luck of the winds spared the city and county this time.
About 200 firefighters helped prevent the blaze from spreading further and faster. No structure damages or injuries were reported. Years of forest thinning by saw crews with the city’s Open Space and Mountain Parks department helped cool the blaze. Typical northerly winds kept the flames away from nearby homes, and allowed the state to send in aircrafts to drop flame retardant on and around the fire.
The blaze started around 2 p.m. Saturday in Bear Canyon, a corridor for Xcel Energy’s power lines running to residents’ homes in the foothills.
As of Monday morning, the fire was 35% contained, officials said, and mostly under control. All evacuation orders were lifted. The cause is under investigation.
Brian Oliver, of Boulder Fire Rescue, said the city was in a good position.
“We’ve had some really good success. Crews have made it all around the fire. We’ve stopped the forward progress, obviously,” Oliver said during a news conference Monday morning. “We’re really actively working to mop up and secure those fire perimeter areas. One of the struggles we have is just the steep terrain on the west edge of the fire.”
The grass fire could have been more destructive under different conditions. Just three months earlier, the Marshall Fire, fueled by 100 mile-per-hour downslope winds, torched more than a thousand homes in nearby Louisville and Superior. The Dec. 30 disaster is the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history.
Boulder may have lucked out this time. But the close call portends a fire season that never really lets up, with yearslong drought and other climate change-fueled impacts baked in — even during a winter that saw above-average snowfall across the Front Range, with snow still covering much of the Boulder skyline.
“We’re nervous about the season coming up. When you look at the long-term forecasts for the upcoming season, I think this is just a sign of the way things are gonna go,” Mike Smith, of the Boulder Incident Management Team, said. “We only have 365 fire days a year.”
‘It’s just the new normal’: View from the evacuation zone
Many of the residents who stayed behind in the evacuation zone have seen wildfires before. For them, Saturday’s inferno was another stage of adjusting to life in a fire-prone area.
Bill Barclay, 73, said he was going to run through his house off Bear Mountain Drive one last time before leaving. He said he sold his previous home in the Spanish Hills neighborhood right before it was burned in the Marshall Fire.
“It’s just the new normal,” Barclay said as he watched the flames from his front yard. “It’s hard to figure out what your response should be.”
The fire may have caused relatively little, if any, structural damage, but it was a major disruption to an otherwise warm and sunny weekend capping off Spring Break.
As a plume of gray smoke rose from Bear Canyon on Saturday afternoon, residents on Bear Mountain Drive started watering their homes before loading up their cars with pets and belongings. Earlier in the afternoon, traffic out of the neighborhood was bumper-to-bumper for about a quarter of a mile.
Stephan Tso, 20, was hanging back in the evacuation zone to watch the fire for a friend who was out of town. Tso said he moved to Boulder from Malibu, California, where his home burned down in the 2018 Woolsey Fire, to major in environmental studies at CU Boulder.
“I wasn’t able to save my house. But maybe I’ll be able to save someone else’s house,” he said.
Tso, who volunteered for a wildland fire crew in California, said he was not sure exactly what he would do if the fire came down the hill from Shanahan Ridge.
“I would probably start spraying down their house, if there’s a hose outside, and contact the kid I know and see if they want me to grab anything for them,” he said.
Kathleen MacDonald, 74, was sitting in the back of her Subaru station wagon beside stacks of photo albums and a handful of letter openers. Her son, Calvin Berry, 33, drove in from Denver to help her pack. She knew she wouldn’t be able to pack everything.
“Where do we start?” she asked.
The 2013 flood turned her backyard into rapids and flooded her basement, she said. And she remembers when flames lit up the backside of Bear Peak in 2012. That year, she said she filled a storage unit with her belongings, including antique furniture. It was a hassle, she said, and did not want to do it again.
MacDonald stood outside her home, watching the tulips poke through her garden bed. She said the neighborhood was quiet. She looked to the east, away from the plume of smoke, and admired the clouds.
“Aren’t they nice? I don’t know if it’s the fire that’s causing them,” MacDonald said. “I don’t know. I’m sick of talking about fire.”
Zak John, 32, was standing in his neighbor’s yard deciding when to leave when an officer with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office stopped.
“You guys realize you’re under mandatory evacuation,” the officer said.
“Yeah, we’re working on it,” John replied.
After the officer drove off, John said he would leave if he had to. He said he doesn’t own a car, and only has a fixed-gear bike. So he could only pack so much anyways.
“This is not just my shit. This is my entire existence,” he said. “Everything that really matters, I’m just gonna pull into my backpack.”
‘We should all wake up’: View from the evacuation point
Onlookers gasped at the view southwest from the evacuation point at the East Boulder Community Center, as a low-flying plane smeared hot pink flame retardant across the active burn area near Bear Mountain around 5 p.m.
“That place, in particular — that’s what I’m thinking about now,” said evacuee Derek Cicchitto, 40. He hiked Bear Peak early that morning while staying at a friend’s house near Tantra Lake, hours before the first flames began to spread from the creek bed below.
Cicchitto, a former longtime Boulder resident visiting from his current home in Germany, said he was grateful the flames had so far spared the city. But he mourned the sight of its hallowed open space in flames.
“That’s one of the most important things about this place: the people and the nature. It’s sobering, for sure,” he said. “I have all these thoughts around Boulder, but they don’t really matter that much. Because nature has its own process.”
As the Red Cross began setting up cots inside the community center for what would become an overnight evacuee shelter, displaced Table Mesa neighborhood resident Lynn LiCalsi reflected on yet another close call with natural disaster.
“I’ve evacuated before, but this was really close. You could see it behind the house across the street,” said the 62-year-old Latin teacher at Fairview High. “My neighbors drove to it and said, ‘Get out. It’s too close.’ So we did.”
LiCalsi said yesterday’s blaze hit close to home in another way, too. As the flames continued to rage across South Boulder open space in the twilight of an unseasonably warm Saturday evening, she said the immediacy of the climate crisis could no longer be ignored.
“It’s in our backyard,” she said. “We should all wake up.”