Boulder County (CO) Foothills Fire Forces Hundreds to Flee; Containment at 25%

Amber Carlson
Colorado Hometown Weekly
(TNS)

Dec. 19—A wildfire that started as a structure fire in Sunshine Canyon before being spread by strong winds forced evacuations in the Boulder County foothills overnight.

The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office posted on Twitter at 1:54 p.m. Monday that they were responding to a structure fire in the 2900 block of Sunshine Canyon Drive. That fire then spread to grassland and was quickly fueled by winds out of the west at 20 to 25 mph.

The evacuation area includes Pine Brook Hill after an update to the area at 7:20 p.m. Monday. The map of the evacuation area can be found at bouldercounty.maps.arcgis.com. As of 7:20, the fire was 25% contained.

Initial evacuation orders earlier Monday included the area west of Foothills Community Park. Boulder County spokeswoman Jennifer Churchill said it is estimated there were 937 residents under mandatory evacuation at one point, and the area included 389 structures, 346 of which are homes. Churchill said an estimated 457 residents were ultimately evacuated and remained evacuated as of 9:30 p.m.

UPDATE: #SunshineWildlandFire now at 20% containment. They do hope winds will die down overnight, but don’t expect #Boulder County mandatory evacuation orders to be lifted tonight. Evacuation area has been updated, however: https://t.co/yglMoqxtxP pic.twitter.com/lwrNmN1yFW

— Mitchell Byars (@mitchellbyars) December 20, 2022

Samantha Sitterley and her husband had just moved into their home on North Cedar Brook Road over Halloween weekend. Sitterley said they were working from home Monday afternoon around 2:15 p.m. when she got an emergency text, then a call, before looking out her window and seeing smoke coming over the ridge.

“My office faces northwest, so it was a clear, beautiful day, except for extremely windy,” said Sitterley. But after getting the notifications, she said, “I went out of my office and looked out of my living room window, which faces south, and saw the billowing smoke, and was like, oh my god.”

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Sitterley, who spoke by phone from a Boulder home owned by her in-laws, said she, her husband and two cats evacuated safely and planned to stay overnight with a friend of hers. But she remembers “a fairly steady stream of cars” going downhill as they drove down Linden Drive toward the city, and the air had become “very visibly smoky” by that time.

When Joseph Gigante and his husband were evacuated from their home on Balsam Lane in Pine Brook Hills, Gigante had just left the house to pick up their dog from the groomer. He said as he was driving, he started to smell smoke, and as he neared Broadway, he saw seven police cars driving back up the hill.

“That was the point where I was like, OK, something’s going on,” Gigante said. “I kind of looked behind me and saw the smoke and called my husband, and he was still up there. … It was nerve wracking.”

In a phone interview, Gigante went back home, where he and his husband packed their laptops, phones and anything else they could grab. They also stopped to grab their next door neighbor’s dog before heading to Gigante’s in-laws’ home in Boulder.

As of 5:30 p.m., a handful of evacuees had arrived at the East Boulder Community Center, a designated evacuation site.

One Pine Brook resident, who was waiting for the center to open, said she had been wrapping Christmas presents and was in her closet when she heard a siren coming from the fire department.

Another evacuee at the center, who has lived in the house that her father had built for 50 years, said that Monday wasn’t her first evacuation experience.

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“It’s not the first time I had to put stuff in a backpack,” the evacuee said. “And we have somewhere to go to.”

By 5 p.m., the fire had grown to 16 acres and was being referred to as the Sunshine Wildland Fire. Initial estimates at 3 p.m. had the fire at about 18 acres, but updated mapping reduced that number.

By 6:25 p.m., wind speeds in the burn area had decreased, with peak gusts reaching 35 miles per hour, said David Barjenbruch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder. Earlier in the afternoon, gusts as fast as 45 to 55 miles per hour had been recorded.

Barjenbruch said the winds were expected to continue to calm overnight, and that humidity was also expected to rise by Tuesday.

By 7:20 p.m., crews had reached 25% containment on the fire and hoped that calmer winds overnight would help firefighting efforts.

Churchill said she did not have any information on if any structures other than the one in the initial call were damaged. A separate set of crews were dealing with the original structure fire, but according to scanner traffic that fire had been contained to only one home and was under control.

Sitterley and Gigante both said they were waiting to hear about the status of their homes as of about 7:15 Monday evening. Although both had places to stay the night, neither one was sure of how long they would be away from home or when the evacuation order might be lifted.

And for both of them, Monday’s evacuation triggered memories of times past. Sitterley was out of her home for six days after she was evacuated during the Fourmile Canyon Fire of September 2010, which she described as “really dramatic and awful.”

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Gigante, who moved here from New York City last year and is a Hurricane Sandy survivor, said the fire evacuation brought back memories from that time in his life.

“You get the sense that the environment isn’t really … it doesn’t really have a whole lot of mercy for you, if you’re kind of in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Gigante. “It can be really scary.”

But Sitterley and Gigante were both quick to praise the efforts of their fire district, with Sitterley saying they had always been communicative about fire safety and mitigation.

Boulder Open Space rangers during the day were attempting to locate hikers in the area, and anyone recreating in the Mount Sanitas area was asked to evacuate the area. Anne U. White trail and Bald Mountain open space are also closed.

The evacuation area at the East Boulder Community Center, 5660 Sioux Drive, was open as a shelter overnight.

Evacuees can take large animals to the Boulder County Fairgrounds at 9595 Nelson Road in Longmont and smaller animals to the Humane Society of Boulder Valley at 2323 55th St. in Boulder.

There are no mandatory evacuation orders in the city of Boulder. Areas west of Ninth Street between Linden and University avenues were under an evacuation warning, but those residents were given the all clear just before 5 p.m.

Boulder Fire-Rescue tweeted that “limited fire spread and improving weather conditions” led to the decision to lift the evacuation warning, but asked residents to continue to monitor the situation.

Westbound traffic was closed at both Sunshine Canyon and Linden drives west of Boulder.

County officials did not anticipate lifting any further evacuation orders Monday night.

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Amber Carlson Colorado Hometown Weekly (TNS) Dec. 19—A wildfire that started as a structure fire in Sunshine Canyon before being spread by strong winds forced evacuations in the Boulder County foothills overnight. The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office posted on Twitter at 1:54 p.m. Monday that they were responding to a structure fire in the 2900 block of Sunshine Canyon Drive. That fire then […]

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