Few Colorado residents will forget last October when the East Troublesome fire raced east past Granby and Grand Lake and into the mountains. Under cover of darkness and against all odds, it leaped the Continental Divide and continued east as if hellbent to destroy Estes Park. On Thursday, October 22, with the even-larger Cameron Peak fire closing in from the north, Estes residents began evacuating.
Then Saturday afternoon, with the fire moving into Upper Beaver Meadows, Mother Nature intervened at the last minute with a glorious snowstorm that tamped down the fires and allowed exhausted firefighters to gain the upper hand. Estes was saved.
But I learned just yesterday there was even more to the story. Last year’s goosebumps and tears reappeared as I read Miles Blumhardt’s story from the June 18 Fort Collins Coloradoan. Its chilling headline: “Rocky Mountain National Park official ‘was absolutely sure’ Estes Park would burn in 2020 fire.”
It seems that on October 21, while the fire was raging on the western side of the park, an unusual fog bank pushed in from the east, obscuring the area where the fire eventually jumped the Divide. Later, the same fog, combined with the old Fern Lake fire scar, would help slow the fire long enough to allow more firefighters and equipment to be brought in.
Early on the 22nd, Mike Lewelling, Rocky Mountain National Park fire management officer, didn’t know the fire had jumped the Divide until he got a call from the National Weather Service saying their satellites were showing heat signatures on the east side of the Divide.
“This had the recipe of being a major, major disaster,” he said. “On the morning of Oct. 23, I was absolutely sure we were going to see Estes burn.”
But it never happened. Lots of advance preparation and fire mitigation efforts by the Forest Service, an unusual fog, and a “divine” snowstorm combined to save Estes Park.
By all means read Blumhardt’s story for yourself, secure in the knowledge that despite any renewed anxiety, you know how it ends. And don’t miss the 25 new photos that accompany it.
The evacuation was ordered on October 22, when Estes looked like this. (Photo: Sally Gaddis)
Note: There are currently five “large” wildfires burning in Colorado:
- Oil Springs Fire in White River National Forest: 7,395 acres, 0% contained
- Sylvan Fire in White River National Forest: 3,583 acres, 0% contained
- Trail Canyon Fire in Ute Tribal lands in Montezuma County: 881 acres, 90% contained
- West Fire in Moffat County: 3,107 acres, 30% contained
- Collom Fire in Moffat County: 640 acres, 95% contained
And it’s only June.
(This list of fires is no longer accurate. It has been changing faster than I can track. For the latest info, see Inciweb and enter “Colorado.”)
See also: “The worst-case wildfire scenario for Estes Park,” by Cory Repenhaggen