Preface: For white frontier families in the mid-1800s, Boulder meant gold. For many who failed to find gold, Boulder meant farming — disgruntled prospectors turning from the foothills to pull vegetables from the plains. Through a joint effort of these two livelihoods, it didn’t take Anglos long after intruding on the Southern Arapaho to sully Boulder’s water with cow manure and mine waste. This forced residents to look upstream, above manure and waste, for clean liquid to convey into town.
In the early-1900s, Boulder bought land up near the Continental Divide to secure a water source. In what became known as the Silver Lake Watershed, high elevation creeks provided the town untainted water through pipes that circumnavigated the mines and mills spotting Boulder Canyon.
Combine those watershed acres with other open space purchased around Boulder and soon the city had a large portfolio of forest and grassland that assured clean water and constricted development. Then that wildland portfolio began to burn.
Not many cities have their own wildland firefighting force, probably because most cities don’t own as much wildland as Boulder. But as climate change promises to increase the risk of that land burning, Boulder Fire-Rescue’s wildland division should become an ever-more valued part of our city’s infrastructure. Yet this will require a mindset shift in both citizens and policymakers. For, like most projects aimed at combating the effects of climate change, Boulder’s wildland division has had to fight for survival since its inception.
In the late 1980s, several large fires singed Boulder’s open space, culminating in the Black Tiger Fire of 1989 that torched over 2,000 acres and destroyed more than 40 houses. These blazes revealed a gap in the city’s firefighting structure. When fires burned open space, no one knew how to answer, “Whose problem is this?”
“Back then, there really wasn’t a coherent strategy on how all the [Boulder County fire] departments fought wildfire,” said Brian Oliver, Boulder Fire-Rescue’s wildland chief who joined the division as a firefighter in 1999. “In the late 80s, there were 26 different fire agencies in Boulder County. None of them mobilized the same way, none of them trained the same way.”
In 1991, with the Black Tiger Fire still fresh in Boulder’s collective psyche, the city hired Marc Mullenix to answer the “whose problem” question. Mullenix came from the Bureau of Land Management in California — a state familiar with wildfire — to find Boulder with a complete lack of “collaborative response.”
“He came from the federal government and was like, ‘What do you mean you don’t use the training curriculum?’” Oliver said, referring to a federal wildfire-fighting training protocol used by other fire-prone areas of the country. “People here were like, ‘I dunno.’ Some had heard of [the curriculum], most hadn’t.”
Larry Donner, who became the City of Boulder’s fire chief shortly after Mullenix arrived in 1991 and would remain so until 2014, noticed not just a lack of collaboration, but a desire to keep departments siloed. “When I first got to Boulder, between the departments it was very territorial,” Donner said.
He emphasized that firefighters were willing to work together. “The territorial aspects weren’t in the field,” Donner said. “They were administrative. Typical of government. We had people on the ground doing terrific work. My job was to negotiate with various city departments to try and allow [those on the ground] to do their job.”
Though he came to Boulder as the city’s fire chief, Donner recognized the risk open space posed to the town it hugged. “My concern was keeping a fire from sweeping, especially from the west, into the city,” Donner said. This made him a fast ally to the burgeoning wildland division. In a frustrating irony, Donner’s house would burn down 30 years later in the Marshall Fire.
As Mullenix encouraged the federal wildfire training protocol among city firefighters and rangers in Open Space and Mountain Parks (then two separate departments), a handful of city staff took to the training more than others. These enthusiastic firefighters and rangers became the first iteration of the city’s wildland division, called the Hot Irons.
“Their job was to respond, as a group, to any fires on or threatening city property,” Oliver said. “They also trained and deployed out to help national efforts, building their skills to bring back here.” (National deployment is still in place today. The modern iteration is called the Shadow Canyon Hand Crew.)
The Hot Irons returned from national wildland efforts with expertise not just in fighting established fires, but how to prevent those not yet begun. Mitigation, however, would become one of the wildland division’s friction points with the public.
We don’t want fire; we also don’t want mitigation
One of the first pushes made by Mullenix after arriving in Boulder was increasing the city’s mitigation efforts. This push was initially welcomed. After experiencing fires of the late 80s, Boulderites wanted to reduce their town’s risk of future fires. But the enthusiasm for such efforts lessened when mitigation projects began to encroach on their lives.
“Everyone wants to talk about mitigation on someone else’s property,” Donner said. “It’s a lot like people who push for public transportation so when they get in their car, there’s less traffic.”
Justin Dombrowski, a Boulder High and CU graduate, and one of the wildland division’s first members, added to the simile: “[But people] don’t want to see or hear the buses.”
Dombrowski, who would go on to become a Director of Response for FEMA, said the phenomenon was illustrated by those who wanted a fire station near their house, but didn’t want to hear sirens in the middle of the night.
In the early days of the wildland division, when facing the prospect of mitigation, some Boulderites insisted they would rather lose their home to flames than have a beloved tree cut down. “When we actually had fires coming up to [their homes], they changed their tune,” Dombrowski said. “But not until it was too late.”
Sometimes, even a fire failed to change minds.
“We would do mitigation projects where we could show we made a difference in fire [severity],” Donner said. “And while interviewing people whose homes were saved [by our mitigation work], they would still be complaining that our crews cut down too many of their trees.”
In addition to mechanical thinning, prescribed burns were a primary mitigation tool utilized by Mullenix. Back then, the process wasn’t nearly so arduous.
“You could kind of just say, ‘This is our property, we’re going to burn it,’” Oliver said.
One of the most effective fire mitigation techniques, prescribed burns are better for the landscape than mechanical thinning. When vegetation is cut and hauled from the forest, the nutrients within that vegetation are taken from the ecosystem. Prescribed burns not only leave vegetation’s nutrients in the forest, they help release those nutrients into the soil.
But smoke obscured the burn benefits.
“I smoked out the city of Boulder, unfortunately, in 1998,” Dombrowski said.
While completing a prescribed burn near Chautauqua, Dombrowski inadvertently lit hundreds of rotting stumps — remnants of a pine beetle infestation 30 years prior — on fire. Not a problem, until inversion lowered the stump smoke over Boulder in a gray blanket. One smoky day became three, as Boulder County performed a burn a few weeks later with similar inversion. Then the Forest Service completed a third to the same effect. Boulder residents weren’t pleased.
“The safest time to do a prescribed burn is when you have less wind and better control over the burning operation,” Dombrowski said. “Unfortunately, stagnant air means you’re going to have that cooling and sinking of air, and you’re going to have smoke problems.”
And people don’t want smoke problems.
“We’re losing the window of opportunity to ever do prescribed burns,” Dombrowski said.
Who’s going to pay?
The wildland division was never flush with cash. Like today, funding for the division historically relied on proximity to tragedy.
“People are reactive by nature,” said Dombrowski, who graduated from CU with a degree in psychology and sociology. “When you want to try to be proactive — which includes preparedness and prevention — it’s much harder to move the needle than it is [after a disaster].”
Memories of fires in the late 80s brought on Mullenix. They also helped pass a .015% public safety sales tax in 1996 that enabled the division’s first hires. Then, memories began to fade. After paying the division’s low, seasonal salaries, not much remained for equipment or a station.
“We didn’t have a lot of resources, so we really had to be creative and take advantage of what we could get,” Dombrowski said. “At the beginning, things were almost literally duct-taped together.”
One example of this creativity was an old military truck the division used as a fire engine. Called a “deuce-and-a-half” because of its two and a half ton weight, Dombrowski spent a summer at the state forest service office turning the vehicle into a wildland machine: installing a thousand gallon water tank on its back, wiring for light bars underneath and putting on an air compressor. “It’s slow, you have to double-clutch drive it, but it can go anywhere,” Dombrowski said of the truck.
According to Donner, the wildland division didn’t do itself any favors by being so scrappy. In doing so much with so little, the wildland firefighters convinced Boulder’s budget office they were doing just fine.
“In the private sector, money flows to success,” Donner said. “In the public sector, money flows to failure. The worse job you do, the easier it is to get resources. And because the fire department did an incredible job with the resources available, it was very difficult to get more. Money was always an issue, both on the structural side and the wildland fire side. But the wildland fire side was even a step down from the structural.
“We were constantly juggling [resources] to make sure we were providing the best protection we could at the time,” Donner continued. “And I’ve got to say, it was pretty minimal. The exposure that the City of Boulder had to wildland fire was huge.”
Not only did the wildland division struggle for equipment, like a proper engine, it also struggled for a home. From the time of its inception until the mid-2010s, they moved from “dilapidated house to dilapidated house.” Usually, the division was plopped in old farm buildings acquired by Open Space through land purchases for the city’s green belt. Sometimes, careful labeling of the buildings was required to avoid litigation.
“By county code, we couldn’t have a fire station there, because there was already a fire station [across the street],” Donner said, remembering when the wildland division moved into a barn on Jay Road that now houses Black Cat Farm. “But I got the county to agree that we wouldn’t call it a fire station, we would call it a fire barn.”
Long term climate, short-term elections
Since its germination, a hindrance to the wildland division has been, in addition to short memories, short election cycles. As Dombrowski said, if you’re trying to positively impact the climate and environment, projects can span years, sometimes decades. So when those who approve such projects want a finished product to wave from the election stage in two years, the most effective long-term solutions sink to the bottom of the priority list.
“Policymakers are sometimes just looking at the next election cycle,” Dombrowski said.
Voters can offer similar roadblocks. The 1996 public safety tax that enabled the wildland division’s first hires failed to get extended a few years later. Voters also declined to fund a city helicopter program that protected their watershed for a time.
The helicopter came after the fire season of 2000, which seemed like “the worst fire season ever.”
“Which we’ve had 10 times since then,” Oliver said. “But back then it was a big deal.”
Seeing fires spotting the nation and Colorado, Boulder’s Public Works department approached the wildland division to ask how to best protect the city’s Silver Lake Watershed from future flames. They were told the only way to quickly get up to the Continental Divide to put out flickers was a helicopter.
Public Works subsequently offered some of their budget, in tandem with nearby mountain fire districts, to fund a program known as Rocky Mountain Helitack. A wildfire helicopter was soon stationed at the Boulder airport.
“It was pretty poorly funded,” Oliver said of the program. “We did a lot of really weird fundraiser events to try and keep cash flow going.”
The helicopter was put to use, helping the wildland division dump on small mountain fires before flames could mature. But tragically, on July 30, 2002, Gordon Knight — a purple heart Vietnam veteran, a brewer who won gold metals at the Great American Beer Festival, and a contract pilot for Rocky Mountain Helitack — went down with the program’s helicopter while doing bucket drops on the Big Elk Fire.
“When something like that happens, it hits your heart,” Dombrowski said of the crash. “When you talk about the fire community, it’s not just a community, it’s a family.
“Firefighters die every year, and every single one of them is not okay,” he continued. “This is not war where we expect casualties.”
To reduce casualties, Dombrowski said, the focus should be on safety. And some safety can be bought through prevention and mitigation.
In 2004, voters voted down a tax that would have continued funding the helicopter program. “We were hoping people would say, ‘Where’s that helicopter we’ve been relying on,’” Oliver said. “But it just went away.”
Where to go from here?
Today, though Boulder’s wildland division doesn’t have its own helicopter, it does have a station and proper fire engines. Still, its budget is less than ideal. In 2022, Boulder Fire-Rescue had $23 million at its disposal with roughly $1 million slated for the wildland division. For context, Boulder Police got $40 million. But the 2023 budget dramatically increases Fire-Rescue’s allotment to $39 million, with some of that increase hopefully finding its way to the wildland division.
Despite the change, Donner thinks Boulder’s wildland firefighters should preserve a connection to their scrappy roots.
“There will never be enough resources for the worst-case scenario,” Donner said. “That’s where it will pay to maintain mutual aid and improve relationships between departments.”
Mutual aid, or different fire districts and departments helping one another in times of need, was an effort prioritized by both Donner and Mullenix. (Mullenix, who passed away in 2008 from suicide, had a bill named after him that helps provide firefighters civil immunity.)
Continuing the practice of collaboration today, Oliver is pushing to ensure all city and volunteer firefighters — along with some Open Space and Sheriff’s Office employees — are trained on wildland firefighting protocol. This will provide the city more hands to fight flames when they arise, no matter the current economic situation.
Oliver is also trying to hire a wildland outreach and education force to keep Boulder’s wildfire risk in the minds of residents and policymakers. If memories are stoked, the division will theoretically have an easier time securing support for historically controversial mitigation efforts. These outreach hires could get funded through three measures on this year’s ballot.
Ballot measures 1A and 1B are countywide initiatives — albeit ones with money earmarked for fire adaptation — making their funds harder for the wildland division to access. The City of Boulder’s climate tax (measure 2A) is the most likely to help Oliver increase his education staff. But even if the tax passes, there’s no guarantee cash will trickle down. The wildland division will have to compete with other city departments for the dough.
Still, memories fresh from the Marshall Fire give this year’s ballot measures their best chance to pass. With time ever inserting itself between today and last December’s tragedy, priorities may soon begin to change. For, as Dombrowski said, humans have trouble remembering what’s not right in front of them. In the lull between fires, Boulder’s wildland management efforts could slow, or stall out completely.
“Then what might happen is there will be another big fire, homes will burn, and potentially people will die,” Dombrowski said. “Then [the public] will want a solution. So you’ll have a year or two year window to make some bigger changes.
“And then that window starts to go away.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the City of Boulder bought the land that would become the Silver Lake Watershed in the late-1800s. In fact, they did not begin these purchases until the early 1900s.