Mar 232005
Authors: James Baetke

The Picnic Rock Fire danced through the terrain surrounding Harold Kaufman's mountain home as it threatened his subdivision nearly a year ago.

The spring 2004 blaze spared Kaufman's home as it blacked almost 8,900 acres of land.

On Wednesday morning Kaufman greeted another type of intrusion, but this one was welcome: the media. During a tour of the burn site, Kaufman and officials discussed how brush clearance, careful selection of housing materials and landscaping can contribute to better protection from fire.

"We did everything right," Kaufman said.

Part of a joint effort between Larimer County, the Poudre Fire Authority, the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado State Forest Service, the tour "Are you Firewise? Picnic Rock One Year Later" was designed to show how Kaufman's efforts are the model for preventing fire destruction to one's property.

The Picnic Rock Fire ignited on March 30, 2004, and was accidentally set when a man was burning trash in his back yard. The fire eventually came within feet of Kaufman's home, as well as two other homes he helped construct to repel wildfires.

The fire threatened 93 structures – 23 of which were homes – before it was contained. Overall, the fire cost almost $3 million to contain as 440 firefighters attacked it with helicopters, engine air tankers and hand crews. Only two structures were lost in the fire: a house and a garage.

The flames charred nearby trees and burnt a forested ridge, leaving only blackened bark in their path, but Kaufman's structures remained untouched by the fire.

An employee of NASA for 23 years and a retired CSU physics and mechanical engineering professor, Kaufman prides himself on understanding the composition of fire and the fuel that feeds it. This know-how saved his home and the residences of his son and daughter.

By understanding the slope that surrounds his home, keeping vegetation cut back, and installing fireproof shingles made of fiberglass, Kaufman saved his home. He said residents in his mountain community recognize wildfires as a persistent threat, but during this fire he got lucky and lost only eight Rocky Mountain junipers he had planted in his yard.

"We planted Rocky Mountain junipers and they burned up beautifully," Kaufman said.

His daughter, Karin Kaufman, a resident of one of the other homes saved from the fire, said luck had nothing to do with her home being spared by the flames. She credits her father's knowledge of materials and techniques in protecting her home. For example, she said that her home's siding is not made of wood or flammable plastic. The siding is a mix of cement and fiberglass. Also, basketball-sized rocks line the slope that encroaches up from a drainage ditch to her home.

"I am just glad my house was saved," Karin Kaufman said. "I do not know how to describe (the fire's aftermath). My impression of what happened took a number of hours."

Jason Mantas, the assistant fire marshal and public education and information specialist for Poudre Fire Authority, remembers the day he first saw the fire. He called it awesome in the most literal sense and said the flames were easy to spot during the blaze's nighttime hours.

But it was the massive plumes of smoke that were most memorable.

"The feeling is like: 'I screwed up a half-hour ago. I should have turned my truck around,'" Mantas said.

Bob Roots, a firefighter for PFA and operations chief for the first two days of the fire, has a long history of fighting fires and reminisced on the Picnic Rock Fire.

Roots said that when wildfires strike, the first priority is keeping firefighters safe and then protecting structures. In the Picnic Rock Fire a 2- to 3-mile narrow road was part of the equation in extinguishing the fire because it was the only way to attack the fire by ground. Access was treacherous and dangerous, he said.

"We won't risk any firefighters' lives for any house, period," Roots said.

As for the upcoming fire season, Roots said it is too early to tell if wildfires will burn this spring and summer. He wants to wait and see how much precipitation Colorado gets in the next few months.

Sonya Whitesell, a fire prevention and education ranger for the Roosevelt National Forest, urges the community to be proactive in preventing wildfires. She also said that firefighters are here for preventative measures and are the last line of defense when a fire threatens an area.

"Just because this area burnt previously does not mean it won't burn again," Whitesell said. "Homeowners are the first line of defense."

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