'A tsunami of flames’: Residents will never forget that fateful March day, and the ferocious fire

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By Daniel Laverty

On March 26 of last year, hell came to 4,000 acres 6 miles south of Conifer.

As the battle to fully control the Lower North Fork Fire continued for a week, residents waited and watched as they learned about three neighbors who lost their lives and homeowners who lost everything in a blaze that was sparked when a prescribed burn escaped in high winds.

The Colorado State Forest Service had overseen the burn on March 22, 2012, on land owned by Denver Water 6 miles south of Conifer to reduce fuels in the area. The subsequent weekend was quiet, but about 1:15 p.m. March 26, high winds carried embers across the control line, resulting in two small spot fires.

The State Forest Service asked for containment help from the North Fork and Elk Creek fire departments, but the blaze was declared escaped about 2:30 p.m.

Before containment a week later, the Lower North Fork Fire burned 4,100 acres, destroyed two dozen homes and claimed three lives.

‘You remember where you were’

State Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, was at the state Capitol on March 26 last year, serving on the state’s Joint Budget Committee.

“It’s one of those days where you remember where you were,” Gerou said. “We were in the final stages of closing the budget, and I received e-mail alerts about the fire. It was a really tough day because I was down in Denver, and that’s not where I wanted to be.”

Gerou said she spent most of the day watching for e-mails and checking online for updates while staying in contact with Jeffco Sheriff Ted Mink and Gov. John Hickenlooper.

As the flames approached

Sharon Scanlan and her husband, Tom, lost their home off Kuehster Road.

Tom was out of town on March 26, and Sharon was in Denver when she heard about the fire. She raced home to do whatever she could before the flames reached her house.

She did what mountain residents know to do — turned off the propane, prepared the windows and filled the bathtub with water. Sharon even left a note on her door to let firefighters know their above-ground pool in back was filled with water. 

Sharon gathered her animals — a canary, a dog and two parrots — and walked down to the barn to check on her horses.

“At that point, I could see and hear the fire,” Sharon said. “The whole forest below our property was on fire. I saw a tsunami of flames. It was surreal.”

The flames were getting closer. Sharon calmed her horses, loaded them into their trailer and drove away safely with her animals.

“As I drove out, I found myself kind of laughing at myself because here I had gone through all of that silly stuff of taking care of the windows, putting water in the bathtub and leaving a note on the door,” Sharon said, “and within 10 minutes, my house was burning down.”

Now it’s been a year since, according to Sharon, “the whole mountain was on fire.”

With the anniversary, “I had a desire to maybe leave town this week,” Sharon said. “But (the victims) may have a little gathering.”

She still hasn’t worked through the emotions of losing everything.

“It’s amazing how, in the blink of an eye, you can find yourself weeping. It’s not just your house; it’s all of your possessions.”

Sharon’s mother had died just a month before the fire. Her mother’s wedding ring and other mementoes were lost to the flames.

“I miss talking to her,” Sharon said, holding back tears. “But I’m glad she doesn’t know what we’ve been through this past year.”

Contact Daniel Laverty at Daniel@evergreenco.com or at 303-350-1043.