Published on July 1, 2019.

Tiger's Eye

In 1989, Colorado's black tiger became an early indicator of the nation's new wildfire reality


By contemporary standards, the impact of the Black Tiger Fire was relatively modest. The fire, which struck Colorado’s Boulder County in July of 1989, burned 2,100 acres, destroyed 44 homes and other structures, and resulted in $10 million in damage. Three decades ago, though, that was enough to make it the costliest wildfire in the state’s history, and the associated property damage helped spur fire preparedness and mitigation efforts that continue to this day.

Boulder County in the summer of 1989 was primed for wildfire. The dry conditions were exacerbated by hot winds that blew through the rugged terrain. Insects had ravaged local spruce forests, and the dead and dying trees added to an abundant fuel supply. The area was dotted with homes commanding broad views of the surrounding hills, though many homeowners were apparently unaware of their wildfire risk.

On July 9, a grass fire started by a discarded cigarette was reported in Black Tiger Gulch, several miles from Boulder. The fire grew rapidly, and arriving volunteer firefighters radioed for mutual aid. When a nearby fire department asked what kind of apparatus was needed, a volunteer replied, “respond [with] all the equipment you can.”

There was little firefighters could do. Fire raced up the slopes of the gulch, consuming everything in its path. “I watched it from about six miles up the road, and you [could see] houses just go up in an explosion,” one resident recalled in a report prepared by Boulder County. More than 500 firefighters from local, state, and federal agencies eventually fought the fire, which was brought under control four days later. There were no fatalities, though several firefighter injuries were reported and a resident was hospitalized with burns.

As debate swirled as to who was at fault, a case study published by NFPA concluded that wildfires like the Black Tiger Fire were only preventable through the combined efforts of community organizations, fire services, government agencies, and homeowners. In response to the incident, the Boulder County Wildfire Mitigation Group was formed to develop strategies for minimizing future losses from wildfire. The group was an early contributor to major wildfire projects including fire hazard mapping, mitigation grants for homeowner associations, public outreach programs, and wildland/urban interface code development—activities that have become the building blocks of community wildfire safety nationwide and around the world.

To learn more about how these types of programs are implemented today, visit

MATTHEW FOLEY is junior applied researcher at NFPA. Top photograph: David P. Gilkey