Forest fires in Colorado can easily get out of hand. The recent fires near Boulder destroyed many homes and all Colorado communities watching Boulder are concerned. More people are building out from the suburbs in forested areas, beetle kill pines are providing a lot of fuel, and the summer is prime time for lightning strikes. A recent brush fire in Eagle was rapidly extinguished but not before the rising smoke provided some tense moments. One of the local “myths” talks about “spite fires” set by Indians in the high country. According to A Brief History of Vail, Vail Associates, “Legend has it that the Utes, angry at being turned out of their mountain paradise, set the forests on fire in the 1800’s, the so-called ‘spite fires’ that burned thousands of acres in Colorado. It may have been one of these fires that burned off the top of Vail Mountain, leaving the open slopes that make our skiing famous.” Rev. Don Simonton in Walking the Trails of Eagle County History [DVD], 1994, tried to disabuse locals propagating the story of spite fires by actually citing some historical research. He discovered that the Denver papers during the summer of 1879, reported a lot of lightning-started fires. It was a very dry year and smoke from fires rolled over the mountains into Denver. Then Governor Steven Pitkin wanted Indian lands in the high country in order to further mining interests so he blamed the fires on the Indians, naming them “spite fires” and justifying land grabs.
Fire crews and trucks parked in a meadow on Castle Peak with forest fire in background. Photo taken on Sept. 22, 1944
Despite Rev. Simonton’s efforts, the spite fire stories continue and are retold as local “legend.” What is definitely fact, however, is that any community in forested areas, any community with buildings heated by wood or coal, and any community with campers building cooking fires nearby is especially aware of fire danger. Reports of fires and damage make up a great deal of local reporting in papers. Some of the earliest buildings in Eagle County made headlines as they burned to the ground. The need for swift, effective fire protection saw the advent of volunteer fire departments early in the development of these towns. In Red Cliff, the hose cart was located on the ground floor of Town Hall, not uncommon in the rural West. Fire fighters were called by a bell to respond. During winter months, frozen equipment and water made firefighting frustrating at best. As early as January 27, 1910, mention is made of “chemical carts” used in Red Cliff to fight a fire in the office of County Judge Pat Tague. “One of the best moves ever made by the town of Red Cliff was the purchase of the two chemical carts through the local agent Marshal Collins. The way in which this fire was handled by them plainly illustrated their value, the carts more than paying for themselves on this fire alone.” [Eagle County Blade Jan. 27, 1910 p.1]