Howard Gordon descended from a deck over his driveway while I double-checked the emergency brake to ensure my car wouldn’t roll down the foothills and end up in Haldi Ditch beside Highway 36.
“You want a cold glass of water?” Gordon asked after I mentioned the smothering 97-degree heat. “Or a soda?”
Gordon’s home sits on one of the grassy slopes making up the first layer of the Rocky Mountains. When I visited, the landscape was a late-spring green that promised not to endure. For the time being though, it held reassurances for those with property in the area.
“This green stuff is a great fire preventer because it won’t burn,” Gordon said, gesturing to the grass on his land. “But once it starts drying out, I’ll cut it down to the ground.”
Gordon’s property is Wildfire Partners certified. After previously talking to Jim Webster, coordinator for the Boulder County fire mitigation program, I drove to Gordon’s home to see what a certified property looked like for myself.
Looking over the plains from Gordon’s driveway, Boulder fans out to the right with hints of Longmont far to the left. “On a clear day we can see DIA,” he said, pointing to the horizon.
From his vantage point, Gordon watched the Marshall Fire march across grasslands from its origin on the mesa into the suburbs of Superior. “We watched with our hearts in our stomachs,” Gordon said. “From the beginning and all through the night.”
Having lived on the property since July 4, 1993, the Marshall Fire wasn’t the first Gordon had seen. Four others were in his direct proximity: the Middle Fork Fire, Jamestown Fire, Olde Stage Fire and Lefthand Canyon Fire. The 2011 Lefthand Canyon Fire caused Gordon to evacuate as flames moseyed uncomfortably close to his property.
“When you have to evacuate because of a fire, it’s a pretty scary thing,” Gordon said. “It means shit’s hit the fan.”
Because of the remoteness of Gordon’s property, firefighters defending his home can’t rely on city water if their trucks run dry. Instead, Gordon has almost 5,000 gallons of water in underground cisterns in addition to a hot tub whose water can be repurposed by firefighters should flames prove stubborn. “Our house is very defensible just from a water access standpoint,” Gordon said.
The main concern for homes like Gordon’s is a lightning strike on a ridge above the house. If fanned by westerly winds hurtling out of the mountains, sparks can quickly turn from flickers into flames.
The ridge above Gordon’s house is spotted with Ponderosa Pines. These self-pruning trees discard their lower branches as they grow: an adaptation to the frequent, low-intensity ground fires that historically burned their ecosystems. But in a human-altered climate, sometimes natural processes benefit from a gentle nudge in the right direction.
Wildfire Partners instructed Gordon to cut away any limbs lower than five feet above the ground. “This keeps the trees from getting involved [in the fire],” Gordon said. The thick trunks of Ponderosa Pines can withstand low-intensity grass fires well, so long as the upper canopy is left undisturbed.
If fire does reach the treetops, however, the same wind that fanned the flames can throw torching pinecones or branches at Gordon’s home. To defend against these flying embers — also called firebrands — Wildfire Partners requires homeowners to have non-combustible roofing and siding material, as Gordon does. But in addition to this blanket requisite, the program also tailors advice to each individual property.
For instance, Gordon’s house sports a deck that offers an expansive view of the Front Range, enjoyable from a lawn chair or the aforementioned hot tub. Yet the deck’s exposed wood also offers fire a potential foothold to the house if not properly maintained.
When I visited, Gordon was in the process of refinishing his deck with fire-resistant sealant. He’d also cleared away all vegetative matter from the deck’s underside, as embers sometimes find their way beneath such structures to taste wood from below. A metal cap on the deck’s underbelly provides additional protection.
‘It’s the prudent thing to do.’
As we walked to the end of his driveway so I could photograph the Wildfire Partners certification posted there, I noticed Gordon’s shirt that read: “You might be a geologist if there are more rocks in your house than in your driveway.”
On cue, Gordon pointed to slabs of rock exposed on the hillside. “Those are ocean beach deposits,” he said. “During the Cretaceous period, all this was ocean.”
The sandstone, mudstones, clays and shales of the Boulder area were deposited by the Western Interior Seaway, a large inland sea that covered Colorado about 92 million years ago.“I don’t know if you know much about the geology here in the front range, but it’s really interesting,” Gordon said.
We walked up the road, away from Gordon’s property and my Wildfire Partners story, so Gordon could show me evidence of cross-bedding in another outcropping of sandstone. Cross-bedding, or cross-stratification, indicates a change in ocean currents when the original sandstone deposits were being made. “Take a picture right there,” Gordon said, pointing to where lines in the stone rose and fell. “But watch out for that cactus.”
Gordon holds an undergraduate degree in geology and a master’s degree in environmental engineering. He puts his expertise to use with the Flatirons Mineral Club and their Junior Geologists program. “We try to foster an interest in kids for rock-hounding and Geology,” he said.
On our way back towards his house, Gordon paused his explanation of geologic processes to raise his hand to a car lifting dust off a nearby driveway. A horn blew in acknowledgement. Gordon removed his hat at the sound and waved it until the car disappeared from view. Gordon replaced his hat and nodded. “My neighbor,” he said.
In suburbia, if your neighbor’s house catches fire, the radiant heat almost guarantees some damage to your home. Where Gordon lives, with hundreds of yards between structures, the risk of fire traveling between neighbors isn’t as great, but it’s still there. If Gordon didn’t put in mitigation work and his home caught fire, wind could take firebrands created by his roof and deck — not to mention all the flammables within his home — and deliver them to roofs and decks lower in the foothills. Through working to protect his home, Gordon is protecting others.
“I’m really very pleased to be a part of Wildfire Partners,” Gordon said. “It’s the prudent thing to do.”
Returning to his house, Gordon took me behind his shed where baskets of rocks sat against more non-combustible metal siding. “That’s agate from Utah,” Gordon said, nodding at the rocks. “Really cool stuff.”
When asked if rock formations in the area made him more attached to his property and therefore more invested in protecting it, Gordon shook his head. “Oh, that doesn’t play into the decision at all,” he said.
After asking several more questions in a similar vein and receiving similar answers, I finally said, “Howard, I’m trying to find a geologic tie-in for the story and you’re giving me nothing.”
Gordon laughed. “That’s because there is none,” he said. “I’m happy to be here but I’ve always been a geology nut.”
Wrapping up our conversation, Gordon handed me a final piece of stone. Rather than uniform gray, one side of the rock held a shimmering swath of minuscule mirrors that directed sunlight into my naked eyes and made me squint. “It’s a mica schist,” Gordon said, running his hand over the stone. He explained that intense heat and pressure deep in the earth’s crust had caused a chemical metamorphosis in the rock, creating its brilliance. That this was a metaphor for wildfire’s effect on landscapes, and therefore my story’s tie-in, occurred to me only later.
After examining the schist a few moments longer, I offered it back to Gordon who held up his hand.
“Keep it,” he said. “I’ve got plenty of rocks.”