Estes Park: When hell came calling

With the Cameron Peak fire on the north, and the East Troublesome fire racing in from the west, Estes Park was in a desperate situation.

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.

When the evacuation was ordered, Estes looked like this. (Photo: Sally Gaddis)The evacuation was ordered on October 22, when Estes looked like this. (Photo: Sally Gaddis)

It was so dark the streetlights came on. (Photo: Estes Park News)

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.

See also: “The worst-case wildfire scenario for Estes Park,” by Cory Repenhaggen

Banner image: East Troublesome Fire (Michael Smith in Westminster)

6 thoughts on “Estes Park: When hell came calling

  1. This morning’s winds were such that the entire area was just thick with smoky haze – still is. Could smell it. As i pulled in at work, ash was falling on us. In June. But the Park is 100% ok; all the fires are distant at this point. And i will NEVER forget that awful dark orange light everywhere and street lights on at 2 in the afternoon with evacuation underway!

    1. The smell of woodsmoke. Hazy skies. Falling ash. Never a good time for those, but it’s way too early. Those fires are distant right now, but so was East Troublesome when it started. The western half of the state is insanely dry and has been all winter. I hope no one ever has to experience again what happened last year. But I worry.

      1. There was a lone comment on one of the Estes pages last evening that i kinda agree with. The thread was about the ashfall and how unsettling it was combined with the smoke settled over us. The writer: “Is PTSD (post Troublesome stress disorder) a thing?

        Air smells cleaner this morning, but haze still here.

      2. We’ve had a lot of haze down here too, off and on for several weeks. Lots of it is ozone, and last week it was fires in Utah and Arizona. It makes for pretty sunsets, but sensitive people are warned to stay indoors. I imagine up there, the PTSD that writer mentioned is a very real thing and it won’t soon go away. Hope the air stays clean and cool for you.

      3. It is far too early, although there’s never a good time. We’re out of the drought in the eastern half of the state, but the western half is ready to burn if you look at it wrong.

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