Fire officials recount devastating East Troublesome blaze
DENVER (AP) — Eight months have passed since Rocky Mountain National Park teetered on the brink of catastrophe due to the devastating East Troublesome wildfire. Burn scars on the east side of the park are showing signs of recovery with new vegetation, and while much of the park remains off-limits, visitors are being allowed to hike in some areas where fire damage was less than extreme.
But when Mike Lewelling shares his harrowing recollections of the three days in October when the fire was advancing and he feared the town of Estes Park was doomed, it becomes clear just how lucky the park and the town were that the damage wasn’t far worse.
In the wee hours of Oct. 23, as wildfire driven by 50 mph winds raged in the nation’s third-busiest national park, the park’s fire management officer couldn’t help himself. Seeing nothing but an ominous orange glow to the west, with occasional sparks from trees exploding into flames in the distance, Lewelling went for a drive up Trail Ridge Road to get a better look.
“I couldn’t stand it, not knowing where the fire was,” said Lewelling, who found his vantage point about 3 a.m. “The wind was blowing so hard, I was inside the car just being rocked. Opening my car door was a challenge. But you could look down at the confluence of Forest Canyon and Spruce Creek. It looked like Mordor. It looked like a boiling cauldron of lava. It was surreal.”
Some 24 hours earlier, a “crazy fog bank” had rolled in from the Eastern Plains and temporarily parked the fire on the east side of the park, Lewelling said, buying fire suppression crews precious time to get aggressive in battling the blaze. But in the early morning hours of Oct. 23, the fog started to lift, the winds picked up and the fire resumed its advance toward Estes Park through Moraine Park and Upper Beaver Meadows.
“On the morning of the 23rd, I was absolutely certain that we were going to see Estes Park burn,” Lewelling recalled on a recent tour of damage in the park, the first time park officials have shared the inside story of last year’s wildfires and their ramifications. “There was nothing to stop the fire if it ran. It had the recipe of being a major, major disaster.”
If the fog bank that parked the fire seemed miraculous, what happened on the night of Oct. 23 and early morning hours of Oct. 24 was even crazier, when as much as 2 feet of snow fell, halting the threat to Estes Park. While fire suppression efforts would continue for several weeks, and it would be two weeks before the park reopened to visitors, the snowfall effectively ended the existential threat after just three days.
The fire came within 4 miles of downtown Estes Park, but the snow “put it to bed,” said Lewelling, still struck by a series of seemingly miraculous events that prevented disaster.
Damage to the park was substantial, though. Nearly 29,000 acres burned. Some 54 miles of its 350 miles of trails were affected by the East Troublesome fire, including 33 miles on the west side and 16 miles on the east side. In addition, the Cameron Peak fire did substantial damage on the north side of the park.
One popular area with significant damage is in Moraine Park and west of there on the Fern Lake trail, which typically attracts up to 20,000 visitors a month in the summer. About 1½ miles of that trail is open now, up to an area called The Pool, but the rest of that trail — including Fern Lake itself — remains closed.
Even the part of the trail that is open comes with a warning, as a sign at the trailhead alerts visitors to hazards ahead. “Portions of the area you are entering were burned during a recent fire,” the sign says, specifically asking hikers to beware of burned-out stump holes, unstable dead trees, loose logs and rocks.
But there are signs of life along the portion of the Fern Lake trail that is open.
“This area was black, just a month and a half ago,” said Doug Parker, the park’s trails program supervisor. “This is greening up really nicely. There are areas where we are seeing new aspen shoots and beautiful wildflowers. We’re seeing new waterfalls we’ve never seen before and new drainage patterns. In other areas, like on the west side, it’s still completely black.”
That is an understatement, and a prime example is the Green Mountain trail, about 3 miles north of the Grand Lake entrance station. Hundreds of blackened trees there, and in areas just to the north along U.S. 34, lie strewn across blackened earth. Rocks along the trail are fractured in ways that make it clear they exploded in the intense heat of the fire. The Green Mountain trail is part of the Continental Divide Scenic Trail and is a popular route for hikers traversing the park over the divide.
“These are some of the hottest, most destroyed sections of trails that we have on the west side of the park,” Parker said at the Green Mountain trailhead. “It’s a really good representation of the damage we see throughout the backcountry, up the Tonahutu drainage, up the North Inlet drainage, where we’re not seeing any revegetation of plant materials. We have a lot of issues with erosion, trails sloughing down into river banks. We have rockfalls coming down into the trail, and downed trees everywhere.”
Parker hiked the Green Mountain trail on Oct. 20, one day before the East Troublesome fire entered the park and came roaring through. One had to wonder why he was hiking there with the fire so close, but actually it wasn’t close at all. Not yet. Driven by 100 mph winds, the fire ran 18-20 miles on Oct. 21 and entered the park via its southwest corner.
“it was surreal,” Parker said. “Like, ‘Really, that happened?’ Because, no, we didn’t feel threatened at the time. It was smoky, but it had been smoky for an entire month over here. Then a day later, the winds pick up and it makes that push. We might have been the last people to get up there for a while.”
For a long while, in fact. Parker acknowledged it could be years before that area of the park reopens.
After entering the park, the fire raced to the east, burning nearly 17,000 acres on the west side and advancing to treeline just below the Continental Divide at 11,500 feet. From there, flaming embers rose into the sky, traveled 1½ to 2 miles east and then fell back to earth, “spotting” on the other side of the divide in the Spruce Creek drainage.
“Twigs, needles, even pine cones will get drafted up in the updraft,” Lewelling explained. “As those get launched, they’re still on fire. As they drop, they can start new fires. That would be spotting.”
The fire came down Spruce Creek and split into two fingers, one into Moraine Park and the other into Upper Beaver Meadows, ultimately affecting more than 4,300 acres on the park’s east side.
There also was a threat from the north. The Cameron Peak fire began burning on Aug. 13 and entered remote areas of the park on Labor Day weekend. For weeks, park officials worried that it might travel up Chapin Creek to Chapin Pass, not far from the Alpine Visitor’s Center on Trail Ridge Road.
“Everybody was watching Chapin Pass, like, ‘Oh, no,’ ” said the park’s public affairs specialist, Kyle Patterson.
If that fire had reached Chapin Pass, fire crews probably would have been unable to fight it there. And from there, it would have had a clear path via the Fall River drainage into Estes Park.
“The risk of the fire getting into Fall River was really high,” Lewelling said. “Once it got into Fall River, then it’s a straight path right into town. We had several different (fire) teams — different levels of operation section chiefs — look at Chapin Pass and it was a loser (from a firefighting standpoint). There was no real good tactical viable option to stop a fire up there.”
Ultimately the Cameron Peak fire stopped its southward advance 4 to 5 miles to the northeast of Chapin Pass in the Hague Creek drainage, but it did burn nearly 7,200 acres on the north side of the park.
For decades, fire management crews have been thinning parts of the forest and cutting down dead trees in hopes of removing potential wildfire fuels, a process they call fuel treatment. In some cases, they had to go back into areas they previously treated because of beetle kills. They are certain those treatments paid off in the suppression of the East Troublesome fire.
Still, they know they got really lucky, too.
“Truth be said, if the fog bank didn’t come, there’s no fuel treatment in the world that’s going to stop a crown fire that’s spotting a mile and a half,” Lewelling said. “There’s a (saying), ‘Chance favors the prepared.’ The chance that the fog came up, that gave us the chance to utilize our fuels treatments and be aggressive with our suppression actions.”