Rebuilding Sunshine after the Fourmile Fire
Four years after the Fourmile Canyon Fire set Sunshine ablaze, citizens of this close-knit community survive and thrive as a living testament to Coloradan fortitude.
The rebuilt Spencer home in Sunshine.
(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)
BITS OF WHITE, paperlike ash fell on Steve and Dee Spencer as they sat down in their backyard to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was a bright Labor Day in the mountains just west of Boulder, at a place aptly named Sunshine Canyon, but the sun was quickly being blotted out by the wall of smoke rising beyond the next ridge.
Finding it harder to breathe as the smoke blew their way, the Spencers finished their sandwiches and got into their two cars, which they had minutes before filled with as many of their worldly possessions as would fit. Though they couldn’t see the flames, a wildfire far down the road in Fourmile Canyon was spreading rapidly, erratically, right toward them, fanned by a relentless wind. Evacuation was mandatory.
The couple set off on the road to Boulder, passing a neighbor calmly walking his two horses to safety. The smoke grew more intense, and their beloved mountain hamlet took on a surreal quality. They drove away slowly, not wanting to leave but knowing they must. “This could be the last time we see this,” Steve thought.
Four years later, the Spencers sit in that same backyard on the same patio chairs that were there when they ate those last-minute sandwiches. But not everything is the same.
Upon closer inspection, the plastic of the faux-wicker chair is burned in a few spots. Many of the evergreens that once surrounded their house are no longer there, destroyed by the fire.
And the house upon whose back patio they drink iced tea is not the house they left that day in 2010, the house where they lived for a quarter of a century and raised their two sons. That house, along with everything in it, was consumed by the Fourmile Canyon Fire.
The Spencers, like dozens of the 168 other families who lost houses to the Fourmile Fire, rebuilt their home in the community they love. They struggled over their decision to rebuild. In the end, they returned because there simply was nowhere else they wanted to live.
WHEN STEVE AND DEE Spencer first came to Sunshine in the late 1970s, the old gold-mining district was home to an interesting assortment of characters: a professor-turned-hermit, an auto mechanic, young families and even a few holdover gold prospectors. The Spencers were hippies in their early 20s living in an old cabin with no running water or electricity. It was there that their first son, Noah, was born. By the time their second son, Dustin, came along, the family had upgraded to a wood-frame modular house they erected on a plot of land not far from their old cabin.
It was a close-knit community where neighbors soon became friends. Not far from the Spencers lived their friends John Hoffmann and Eleanor Mahoney and their two children. John, an architect, designed his own house, a dream home in the mountains. It was an idyllic place to raise a family. Their daughter and son, Bonnie and Brendan, helped cut their own Christmas trees from the forest, went on hikes, built forts and took part in Sunshine’s big Halloween carnivals. “They grew up in a magic zone up here,” Eleanor said of their children. “It’s only five or six miles from town, but it feels like wild America.”
People in Sunshine knew fire was a threat, but it was one that the Sunshine Fire Protection District, a volunteer fire department, was always on call to combat. John had even designed one of the district’s fire stations. When fire broke out in Fourmile Canyon on the morning of Sept. 6, 2010, the Sunshine firefighters raced to the scene. There they remained, working nonstop for a day and a half while the fast-moving flames spread across the mountains to their own community.
John and Brendan, then a senior in high school, were at home when they noticed the smoke. Eleanor and Bonnie were in Boulder running errands. The father and son drove along Sunshine Canyon Drive to see how much danger the fire presented. When news reports identified the fire’s location, John looked it up on a USGS map and figured it was seven or eight miles away. He had evacuated three times for fires that were closer and returned to an unscathed house, but just to be safe, he and Brendan began packing.
Dee Spencer was helping a group of volunteers clean up the old Sunshine schoolhouse when the smoke rolled in. “You could see it was big,” Dee said, “but we’ve had fires here before, so we kept working.” A few people driving by the schoolhouse stopped to tell them this particular fire was looking pretty bad. The more people said that, the more Dee and her colleagues believed them. They put down their mops and headed home.
BACK AT THEIR HOUSE, Steve and some friends were at work on the house’s deck, readying it for the rehearsal dinner for their son Noah’s wedding less than two weeks away. Soon they got the reverse 911 call telling them to evacuate. Then came another call, this time a friend of Dee’s. “Are you leaving?” the friend asked. “And if you are leaving, what are you taking?” Both were good questions.
The Spencers took the situation seriously, but they couldn’t believe the fire would actually reach them. They decided to treat this as an exercise – practice for the day the real fire came. Steve and Dee are both painters and musicians, so they loaded artwork and musical instruments into their cars. They made sure to pack up computers, photo albums and things with sentimental value, but they couldn’t possibly get everything. Dee grabbed the flute she’d had since she was 15, but she left behind the portrait her father painted of her playing that flute.
“Part of you is saying, ‘Better take as much as you can,’ ” Dee said. “And another part is saying, ‘We’re going to come back.’ ”
JOHN HOFFMANN got the reverse 911 call around the same time. “I really didn’t think we were in jeopardy until the evacuation notice, which I took seriously because ashes were falling on our house,” he said. He and Brendan rounded up their cat and two collies, plus guitars, computers, photo albums and architectural drawings from his home office, but their methodical effort took on an element of panic as windborne embers began dropping from the sky. They rushed off in two vehicles before the only road out became impassible.
The Spencers regrouped in front of Moe’s Broadway Bagel in north Boulder, but after an hour or so of waiting and worrying with other evacuees, Steve decided to go shopping at Macy’s – after all, he needed to buy a suit to wear to his son’s wedding.
Unlike many of their friends, the Spencers didn’t have to wait long to learn their house’s fate. Some of their neighbors had stayed behind in defiance of evacuation orders, and one of them called his wife in Boulder on the fire’s first night and said the Spencers’ house had caught fire three times. The quick-thinking neighbors beat back the fire twice using buckets and shovels, but the fire won the battle on its third try. Incredibly, when the ad hoc firemen realized the house would be lost, they dashed inside and saved everything they could find that looked important, including the painting of Dee playing the flute and her grandmother’s rocking chair. They only stopped their work when the heat of the flames started bursting the windows.
John and Eleanor were left in limbo for days. They went to sleep at the Louisville home of Eleanor’s mother on Monday night having watched their house in flames on the evening news, but the next morning they received word the house was still standing. On Wednesday, they went to a mountain overlook and used a sheriff’s telescope to search for their house. It was gone. Of the many things that disappeared when their house went up in flames, Eleanor was especially saddened by the loss of her wedding rings.
NOAH SPENCER’S WEDDING was fast approaching, and his parents’ home was a smoldering ruin. At this point, everything could have fallen apart for the Spencers. Instead, everything seemed to fall perfectly into place. Noah’s fiancee’s mother gave them a place to stay in Boulder; one of their friends lodged visiting family members at his house; and another friend hosted the rehearsal dinner. As loved ones gathered in the wake of calamity, the emotional highs of the Sept. 18 wedding seemed even higher.
Two days before the wedding, they were allowed to return to what once had been their home. It didn’t look like the same planet. The once-colorful landscape was black, white and gray, the evergreen forest reduced to stands of tall, blackened poles. All that was left of their house was the foundation, rubble and a claw-foot bathtub. Burned bicycles looked “like ghosts – like skeletons of bicycles,” Steve said. Miraculously, the patio chairs survived mostly unharmed.
The fire was as fickle as it was cruel. Many of the houses in Sunshine survived intact, with seemingly random homes singled out for destruction. It was all a matter of where the wind carried the sparks and embers. “I love everything about this state,” Steve said, “except the wind.”
Not long after the wedding, Steve and Dee took a long road trip, venturing through the San Luis Valley, Durango, Mesa Verde and Taos, New Mexico. Along the way, they were inspired to build their next house in the territorial style – tin pitched roofs and adobe – that they saw in the architecture of southern Colorado. In lieu of adobe, they settled on adobe-colored stucco.
Thankfully, they had good insurance that would cover the cost of this new start. Together, Steve and Dee sketched out a floor plan with a large “great room” at its heart. Steve already knew he wanted solar panels and radiant floor heating, and talks with friends yielded more ideas for improving on the previous house. With the help of an architect and mechanical engineer, their sketches became blueprints, and with the help of their friend and neighbor Roger Folsom, owner of Greenbelt Construction, their house was built and ready to occupy just 14 months after the fire.
John Hoffmann and Eleanor Mahoney also decided to rebuild their house in Sunshine, a decision made easier because, as an architect, John could design it himself. They opted not to rebuild on the exact location of their old house – the property was just too devastated. Instead, they purchased the lot that was once the site of a neighbor’s house that was also lost in the fire.
He designed the house with flame retardancy in mind. That meant having a deck made of concrete instead of wood – “a standard wood deck is like attaching a matchbox to your house,” John said. They’d had a tiny grass lawn at their old house. To their surprise, the grass remained as green and lush as ever when they went up immediately after the fire, which had gone around the lawn seeking the path of least resistance. John and Eleanor laid sod all around their new house, hoping for similar results should another fire come along.
Their old house had a lot of nooks where they placed their many antiques and heirlooms. With those irreplaceable things forever gone, the new place has an almost Zenlike simplicity. In addition to adding better insulation, heating and cooling, John and Eleanor upgraded their vegetable garden, now on a rooftop and away from hungry deer. The new home has a big fireplace. The whole family used to enjoy crackling logs in the fireplace, and John and the children still do. Not Eleanor. “I’m never going to like them again,” she said.
When the family moved into their new house just before Christmas 2012, Eleanor felt like she got her first real night of sleep in 2 ½ years. With the accumulation of new memories, the house is becoming a home. Still, she said, it’s not quite the same to move back to the old community when many old neighbors decided not to return.
“You can rebuild a house, but how do you reknit a community?” she asked.
But perhaps there’s enough of the old fabric left to sustain Sunshine. After the Spencers spent the first night in their new house around Thanksgiving 2011, their friend Roger Folsom stopped in for coffee the next morning. Then some more friends came by. Then more. It was a surprise housewarming party, drawing many old neighbors – those who had lost their homes and those who hadn’t.
“It’s a real community,” Dee said. “That’s why we came back.”
(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)