The Passive Solar Home that Survived the Sugarloaf Mountain Fire

Devastation gives way to healing for survivors of Colorado’s Sugarloaf Mountain fire.

| November/December 1999

After several days of triple-digit temperatures, the thermometer had again soared to 100 degrees in Boulder, Colorado, on July 9, 1989, and stiff, dry winds blew up out of Black Tiger Gulch. No relief was in sight from the month of rainless days as neighbors on Sugarloaf Mountain prepared to gather for a Sunday picnic sponsored by the volunteer fire department. Up on Lost Angel Road, Susan and Tom sat on their patio planning their honeymoon in Italy. Bill puttered around in his greenhouse while his wife, Deann, ran errands in town. Betty decided it was too hot and windy to weed her garden and instead sat on the front porch, watching the tree swallows and the wrens feed their families in the bird­houses and talking to Dirty Face, the squirrel who nested in the front wall of her cabin.

Betty’s partner, Rolland, a Colorado native, had been talking all summer about the ripe conditions for a forest fire, so Betty wasn’t all that surprised to look out and see a column of smoke stretching across the sky due south of the cabin. A neighbor who had a better view of the fire making its way up Black Tiger Gulch called and advised Betty to leave. Meanwhile, another neighbor called Tom and Susan to enlist their help in saving a home that was threatened by the fledgling inferno. As they headed toward the house, they were stopped by a volunteer firefighter, who told them to get long pants and shovels to help build a fire line. By the time Tom and Susan had changed their clothes, the blaze had chimneyed to the top of Pisgah Mountain and was crashing in waves down the other side toward their own home. The sun had become an otherworldly red disk in the black, smoky sky, and an intense gust singed Tom’s eyebrows. “Get your toothbrush,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be sleeping here tonight.”

Deann had seen the smoke on the mountain from town and rushed back up just before officials closed the road. She found Bill in a panic, pounding the hose against the driveway. He couldn’t get the nozzle off, and he wanted to spray down their shake roof. In two hours, the fire had blazed a three-mile path and had reached the ridge just above their home. Helicopters buzzed overhead; B-52 bombers dropped red clouds of fire retardant. In this war-zone atmosphere, Bill and Deann put their cats in pillowcases and made some quick decisions about what items they couldn’t live without. They loaded some clay pots, Navajo rugs, and their espresso maker into the car. On the way out the door, Bill grabbed their teenage daughter Molly’s report card, which had been magneted to the refrigerator. They thought they would never again see the home they had built with their own hands.

The Black Tiger Gulch fire, which officials believe was started by a carelessly tossed cigarette, destroyed 44 houses and other structures within six hours of its ignition. By the time it was completely extinguished four days later, more than 2,000 acres had burned. The fire’s tentacles reached within 3 feet of Bill and Deann’s concrete block and stucco home and caused some roof damage, but firefighters managed to save the structure.

Susan and Tom crept back into their charred, lifeless neighborhood, which residents describe as everything from “lunar” to “Hiroshima,” expecting the worst. They ­didn’t recognize their own driveway until they saw a glint of moonlight from one of their windows. Cool, sweet air wafted from inside their concrete-block house. Fire officials later told Tom and Susan that their house was probably saved by the fact that it was built into the earth, depriving the fire of the oxygen it needs to move inside a structure.

Betty and Rolland weren’t so lucky. Their cabin, tipi, and several other buildings on their property were reduced to six inches of ash. All that remained were the stone shop where Rolland made and repaired clocks, an underground cellar, and a birdhouse in the midst of the charred garden. Betty burst into tears when she realized the baby tree swallows and wrens had burned to death in the other birdhouses. She moved through her garden touching the burned vegetables and flowers, crying for them all. But overnight, bean plants popped up through the fried earth. By evening, Rolland had the photovoltaic pump working and had filled the cistern. The couple began watering their garden and hatching plans for rebuilding.

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