Chris Frey was eating a bowl of cereal on the morning of Sept. 6 when his father told him that their family had an hour to evacuate their house near Boulder. Frey finished his cereal, still thinking it was no big deal.
â€œAnd then I looked outside again and saw that the sun was entirely blocked by all of the smoke,â€ he said. â€œThatâ€™s when I knew that something was wrong.â€
The small plume of smoke Frey, a Colorado State University sophomore, had seen rising from a gully below during his dirt bike earlier that morning had flamed up into the Fourmile Canyon fire, which would become the most destructive fire in Colorado history and would soon consume his house.
Frey’s house would be just one of the 169 lost in the ensuing days as the fire tore through the picturesque canyons and small mountain towns just west of Boulder.
Frey went into his room and began sorting through all of his items, wondering what to keep and what to leave â€“â€“ possessions he would never see again.
â€œI tried to throw only the sentimental items into my bag, but it was tough,â€ Frey said. â€œI had less than an hour to determine what memories I wanted to keep, what I wanted to still have from my childhood.â€
After packing his car with some childhood items and his snowboard gear, he helped his mom load her car with other personal items and an expensive chair. He put his birds and dog into his car, but in his rush to evacuate he didnâ€™t have the time to find the cat, which he had had since middle school.
â€œI guess that my last service to it was feeding it that morning,â€ Frey said. â€œI never saw it again.â€
Frey and his mother drove down the dirt road along their property to Gold Hill, a mountain town of 210 people 10 miles northwest of Boulder, while his father stayed at their house to make sure that his neighbors were evacuating.
â€œIt was absolute pandemonium,â€ said Kathy Frey, Chris Freyâ€™s mother. â€œI didnâ€™t know where my husband was, and I didnâ€™t want to leave, so I just stayed and helped them direct traffic out of town.â€
As she stood in the streets of Gold Hill, watching her neighbors try to find safety, Kathy Frey could hear the planes whooshing overhead dropping fire retardant, trying to slow the advancing inferno.
Chris Frey, meanwhile, dropped his car off and tried to get back to the property, thinking he could help his dad fight the oncoming flames. When he got over the ridge looking down at his house, he knew it didnâ€™t stand a chance.
â€œIt was an absolute inferno,â€ Chris Frey said. â€œThe house was engulfed in flames. If he was still there, he would have been dead. And thatâ€™s what I spent the better part of my day thinking.â€
Chris Frey eventually hitched a ride back to his car, knowing he needed to get away from the fire. Meanwhile, his father, Mark Frey, was running for his life.
â€œAs the fire got closer, I saw that it had blocked off the road, so I couldnâ€™t take my car. I had no choice but to run two miles down the hillside, away from the flames,â€ Mark Frey said.
Neighbors leaving town eventually picked up Mark Frey, and he met his wife in Gold Hill and Chris Frey in Boulder. The family home was gone.
â€œItâ€™s indescribable. Itâ€™s unbelievable. Itâ€™s surreal,â€ Kathy Frey said. â€œItâ€™s all ash and the stumps of dead trees. Thatâ€™s all thatâ€™s left of our house.â€
â€œItâ€™s really tough to know that itâ€™s all gone â€“â€“ all of those childhood memories, just the fact that I had a home to go to and relax,â€ Chris Frey said. â€œAll those memories are just memories now. The place where I grew up is gone.â€
The historic downtown of Gold Hill is still intact, but 10 homes off the main street, including the Freyâ€™s, are nothing but burnt rubble. The hill overlooking the town display charred trees and a blanket of ash, with burnt fire lines still hanging from some of the branches. A visible line down the hillside where the fire was deterred splits Gold Hillâ€™s lucky residents from the unlucky.
Andy Martinzk, a Gold Hill volunteer firefighter, fought the fire for three days before federal firefighters replaced him but eventually his group of volunteers returned.
â€œWhat amazed me was the sheer speed and intensity of the fire,â€ Martinzk said. â€œIt wasnâ€™t our efforts that saved Gold Hill. The wind changed. We were lucky. That was all.â€
Chris Frey didnâ€™t miss any school after the fire and now lives at his off-campus house. His parents are borrowing a condo in Boulder. Chris Frey hopes to one day build again in Gold Hill, though his parents arenâ€™t so sure about returning.
â€œI havenâ€™t cried since the fire,â€ Kathy said. â€œYouâ€™ve got to move on, and youâ€™ve got to live your life.â€
The town of Gold Hill isnâ€™t the type of place that will let its residents scatter. On Sunday, almost three weeks after the fire, the Gold Hill Inn hosted a benefit for fire victims. Event organizers said it raised $3,000 on beer sales alone.
â€œWeâ€™re a tight-knit community here, and weâ€™re not going to let anyone disappear because of the fire,â€ said Martinzkâ€™s mother Becky Martinzk, a family friend of the Freyâ€™s. â€œItâ€™s our duty to help them, and thatâ€™s what weâ€™re all going to do.â€
Chris Frey shares this sense of optimism.
â€œThe fire is always going to be a rough subject for me, but, just like in nature, fire is a cleansing process,â€ Chris Frey said. â€œSomething is going to reborn out of the ashes of what happened. Right now might not be great, but itâ€™s going to be better tomorrow.â€
To donate to victims of the Fourmile Canyon Fire in Gold Hill, go to http://goldhilltown.com.
Outdoor Life writer Allison Sylte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.