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Thursday, September 30,2010

Battling the blaze

With its livelihood on the line, one Gold Hill family fought back

By David Accomazzo
It’s a hot Tuesday afternoon, and half of Colorado Mountain Ranch lies in ruins, one of many homes and businesses destroyed by the Fourmile Canyon fire that torched more than 6,000 acres in the foothills surrounding Boulder. The taste of ash is in the air as Mike Walker, whose family has owned the ranch for generations, repairs the blackened tractor he used to save many of his buildings from the fire that burned his home, barn and storage units to the ground. A team of volunteers from the East Idaho Southern Baptist Association picks through the rubble that used to be the Walker house for knickknacks, or anything at all that might have survived the blaze.

As Walker’s wife, Lynn, surveys the remains of her home, a volunteer approaches and presents her with a statuette of the Virgin Mary.

“Oh, fantastic!” Lynn squeals. She explains that one of her oldest friends, a Catholic, gave her the figurine decades ago. She places it on an ashy stump next to a small metal bull and a hammer salvaged from the ruins, and the volunteer returns to the pile of rubble that used to be the Walkers’ living room.

The damage to the ranch is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it could have been worse. As firefighters fled the ranch when the flames got too close, Mike stayed behind and fought the flames himself, saving his ranch from certain destruction. When Chuck Norris wants to fight fires, the family saying now goes, he calls Mike Walker.

The ranch — a small plot of land with a corral, 35 horses, the family home, a lodge, an office and some cabins — sits just up the road from Gold Hill, framed by what used to be a picturesque backdrop of rugged hills and peaks carpeted in a lush blanket of pine trees. The ranch offered a summer camp for 60 years, and it hosted weddings when weather permitted. Mike met Lynn when she was a camp counselor working on the ranch. They fell in love, married and raised three girls on their property.

When the fire started the morning of Sept. 6, Mike, Lynn and their daughters Kate and Rosie were at the ranch overseeing a fraternity that was taking a team-building course. Rosie spotted something over the hills that looked like smoke. She told the family, and Kate called 911. The operator told her that there was a fire at the bottom of Emerson Gulch, just miles from the ranch. Hoping for the best, they decided to keep an eye on the fire and to continue activities until they heard more.

Then the reverse 911 call came.

The operator told them their lives were in danger and they needed to evacuate.

“I went down to the challenge group and told [Rosie] to finish ... and have them leave early,” Lynn Walker says.

She had to make some split-second decisions about what to grab before they left.

Her granddaughter, Jade, came first. The horses came second. Lynn was to take responsibility of Jade and get her to safety while Rosie — Jade’s mother — and some other ranch employees rounded up the horses and tied them up safely so they could transport them away from the ranch.

“I always thought it wouldn’t be that quick,” Lynn Walker says. “I grabbed a few photos off the wall. I grabbed some underwear, and I loaded the dog [and the cat], and I think that was it.”

As his family evacuated, Mike elected to stay at the ranch and do what he could to fight the fire. For him, leaving wasn’t an option.

“As soon as I was 16 years old, I was told [by my parents] I could go up and live on the ranch year-round,” he says. “[The ranch] is like a family member. I’ve been working on this place since I was 16 years old. I’ve got my whole life wrapped up in it.

“I didn’t even consider leaving,” he adds. Fire was blazing towards the ranch from the west and the south, and Lynn realized she had to leave immediately with her granddaughter. She drove her truck out through the ranch’s entrance and went to the family’s fall pasture up the road from the ranch, where Rosie and company were tying up horses.

But soon falling ash started hitting the animals, forcing the family to move the animals again. Then another problem arose: While the ranch has 35 horses, the family has only a four-horse trailer and a 16-horse trailer with which to transport them. So while Rosie helped load up the trailers, Lynn was frantically calling other liveries outside the burn area to see if they could help transport the horses.

Others immediately responded to her call for help, and soon there were more trailers than they could use. By this time, sheriffs had already blocked off some of the roads, and a deputy redirected the extra trailers to other stables in need of evacuation. Rosie Walker and her boyfriend TJ were able to take all the horses up to Peaceful Valley on the Peak-to- Peak Highway. When authorities declared that area to be in the evacuation zone, they again moved the horses, this time to the Boulder County Fairgrounds in Longmont. They’ve since moved most of the horses down to a pasture in Castle Rock.

Lynn dropped off Jade at her father’s place in Longmont, dropped off the animals, and turned back towards the ranch.

“I was thinking, ‘I gotta go back up there. I gotta get Mike,’” Lynn says.

She couldn’t leave her husband to fight the fire alone. Plus, she had his pain pills. Several years ago, her husband had knee replacement surgery in both legs, and he can’t walk if he stops taking his meds. Knowing he was still fighting the fire, she knew he wouldn’t last long without them.

Lynn and Rosie drove up to the ranch to join Mike, who had spent the day fighting the fire with occasional help from various fire departments. The Walkers arrived around midnight.

“There was a lot of fire, little flame-ups everywhere,” Lynn Walker says. “So we drove around calling out the windows, ‘Mike, Mike!’ And when we got to the office he shouted, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ He had just sat down.”

Mike Walker had spent the day fighting the fire with the only tools he had: a small tractor and his bare hands.

After his family left, Mike began doing what he could to keep the fire away from the structures. Firefighters from Gold Hill and Boulder were lighting protective fires — called “backburns” — to prevent the fire from spreading to the structures.

Chris Finn, chief of the all-volunteer Gold Hill Fire Protection District, arrived after the backburns had already cleared part of the area.

“There was almost no humidity, and the winds were 30 to 50 mph, blowing every direction of the compass,” he says. “A firefighter’s worst nightmare.”

He and his crew went up to the ranch to help manage the backburns. But when they arrived, the winds had changed directions, and the fire was too close. Thinking of his people’s safety, Finn made the decision to pull back to town and leave the ranch to burn.

With firefighters in retreat, Mike stayed up at the ranch. There was a cabin surrounded by grass that was close to the lodge and in the line of the fire coming from the south. The fire tore up the hill and traveled around the cabin and ignited the porch, which faces the lodge. Mike realized the lodge was in danger.

“All I had to fight with was that doggone tractor,” he says. “If I’d had a big old front-loader, I would have just pushed that thing away. I was beating that thing with a rug.”

Lacking larger equipment, he took his tractor, only equipped with a small front-loader, and ripped the flaming porch off the cabin. Firewood they had stored underneath the cabin also caught fire, so he used the rug to beat that out as well.

Mike and Lynn, along with help from various friends and employees who snuck through the roadblocks, spent the next five days hauling water and fighting flare-ups around the ranch. When the flames died down, they had saved the office, the lodge, and two cabins from certain destruction.

Now, weeks after the fire’s containment, the Walkers again have unfettered access to the ranch. There’s seemingly endless work to do, and small clouds of ash gather around your feet as they crunch on top of the torched grass. But the Walkers are slowly beginning the clean-up process and are grateful for the help they’ve already received.

“Hey, you people are amazing,” Mike says to one of the Southern Baptist volunteers as the group leaves for the day.

“Well, we’ll be here tomorrow,” the worker replies. The Walkers have hauled off numerous loads full of scrap metal and have salvaged what they could from the rubble of their house. Their possessions were “severely underinsured,” in Lynn’s words, so they don’t expect much help from their insurance company. There’s much rebuilding left, but the Walkers are upbeat.

“We’re absolutely doing camp next summer,” Lynn says.


MORE INFORMATION: To donate to Colorado Mountain Ranch, visit or send a check to Colorado Mountain Ranch, 10063 Gold Hill Road, Boulder CO 80302.
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