Saving Rocky Mountain National Park

Early on the morning of Oct. 23, Mike Lewelling stood at the Forest Canyon Overlook on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park and stared 2,500 feet down into what he called a cauldron of fire and swirling wood smoke. 

The East Troublesome Fire had Lewelling, the park’s fire management officer for 15 years, and his colleagues more than a bit panicked that fall Friday. But after decades of training and preparation, they like to think of it as productive panic. 

On Oct. 21, East Troublesome had run 18 miles in 90 minutes on the furious wings of 100-mph winds, jumping the Continental Divide at Sprague Mountain. Superheated chunks of pine cone and lodgepole pine boughs leapfrogged the high alpine tundra from the Grand Lake side to the east, in 1.5-mile surges that stunned every fire manager. 

Two days later, as Lewelling was mesmerized by the cauldron below, the even more massive Cameron Peak fire was squeezing the park from the northwest. The two fires created a dire pincer, pushing flames downhill in any of five different drainages pointing straight at the sprawling tourist mecca of Estes Park. 

He knew the next few hours would be crucial for saving the park, visited by 4.6 million people a year, and the town, home to 6,000 residents and tens of thousands of tourists at any given time. But he also knew everyone in Larimer County now had to rely on fire mitigation work that began 20 years before. And when the fire was out — if East Troublesome could be put out — Colorado would need the expertise of colleagues like Koren Nydick and Doug Parker for the next 20 years to preserve Rocky Mountain National Park’s legacy. 

The story those three park managers told last week describes how precise planning, dumb weather luck, backbreaking preparation and nimble adaptation are combining to save the park’s 415 square miles from the ravages of two 2020 wildfires.

One of Lewelling’s favorite sayings is, “Hope is not a good plan.” One of his other favorite sayings is, “Chance favors the prepared.” 

On Oct. 23, the park was the proving ground for his aphorisms. 

Burnouts, lucky ridgelines and magical fog 

When East Troublesome skipped over the park’s famous high tundra, it grew in disease-ridden lodgepole and spruce in Forest and Spruce canyons. Temperatures have risen for decades in the park and soils have dried out. Mountain pine beetles survive milder winters and attack lodgepole, and spruce beetles turn majestic spruce into matchsticks. 

Lewelling and his team, which includes the full-time Alpine Hotshots firefighting crew, first heard of the fire racing around Grand Lake and jumping the divide at a midnight briefing. Lewelling took a call from the National Weather Service at 5 a.m. on Oct. 22, telling him their satellites were detecting hot spots in Spruce Canyon. 

Spruce Canyon runs in a line downhill into the Big Thompson River, feeding the fire across popular Fern Lake and Cub Lake, into Moraine Park and on to the hundreds of tinder-dry wood buildings at YMCA of the Rockies. From there, wildfire could roll over restaurants, RV parks, resorts, and T-shirt and rock shops, straight into Estes Park. 

The Estes Valley, with the views that enthusiasts in the early 1900s likened to Switzerland, has five major drainages, Lewelling said. All five funnel into town. 

All of Estes Park was ordered evacuated on Oct. 22. That morning, a fog bank crept uphill from Longmont, a cooling cloud the ever-practical Lewelling does not hesitate to call miraculous. The fog mixed with smoke to lend evacuation scenes an apocalyptic red glow. But it also put a wet blanket on fire fuel and coated pine needles in a light dusting of ice at higher elevations in the park.

A large burn scar from the East Troublesome Fire can be seen on Beaver Mountain on the east side of the Park. Fire managers talk about how a simple ridgeline like this can bolster their hard mitigation work with some simple luck. The trees to the right, on the north-facing side of the ridge, tend to stay moist compare to the sun-baked trees on the more exposed portion to the left, and can help slow wildfire. On June 17, 2021, in Upper Beaver Meadows. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

The pause gave Lewelling time to organize the hotshots and hundreds of other personnel from dozens of agencies. They prioritized targets with managers of the Cameron Peak fire. That blaze had started well to the west in August, burned into isolated areas of the park, then roared into Colorado’s largest wildfire in history by Oct. 14. By late October it was riding the same dry winds that drove East Troublesome, and had wrapped around to the east to threaten Glen Haven north of Estes Park. 

So on Oct. 23, Lewelling drove to 11,500 feet. The winds were rocking his car, and when he emerged at the overlook, a gust ripped the door from his hands.

Topographically, it was as if he were standing at the top of a chute. Park headquarters, the YMCA, and Estes Park were all at the bottom. The fire had multiple attractive routes to get downhill fast: Moraine Park, Beaver Meadows, Glacier Gorge, Old Fall River Road. 

“On that morning, I was absolutely certain we’d see Estes Park burn,” he said.

Bear Lake Road and Beaver Meadows had to be the firebreak.

That hope had all been mapped out long before. Lewelling last week rolled open an overlay map showing the red outline of East Troublesome’s path east across the park, and a yellow outline of all the fire-fuel clearing that crews have done over decades.

“We’ve been fighting this fire for 20 years,” Lewelling said. 

He calls the yellow zones the “catcher’s mitt.” For years, every cutting crew he could contract cleared beetle-killed trunks and the lowest 10 feet of living ponderosa pine branches. They stacked them in slash piles the size of semi-trailers on the moraine slopes, and burned them when surrounded by winter snow. 

A Master Fuels Plan developed years ago is their guide and logbook. It explains why ponderosa trunks near the Bear Lake turnoff are blackened eight to 10 feet off the ground, from a prescribed burn in 2019. The ponderosa’s thick bark keeps low-intensity fires from killing the tree, while the flames take care of the low, dead branches. 

Rocky Mountain National Park wildfire mitigation East Troublesome fire fuels treatment
Areas where Rocky Mountain National Park crews have worked to thin out wildfire fuels are shown in yellow, next to the areas of 2020’s fast-moving East Troublesome fire that forced the evacuation of Estes Park that fall. Officials hope to improve forest health and also reduce the chances of another wind-blown furnace threatening communities on the east side of the park. (Rocky Mountain National Park)

A prescribed burn north of Upper Beaver Meadows Road in 2009 was meant to protect Deer Mountain, the last hump before downtown Estes Park, from fires like the East Troublesome. On Oct. 23, as firefighting crews scrambled to stamp out hot spots, it did. 

Fat fingers of burn came over Mount Wuh, down past Fern Lake, along the edge of the Moraine Park riding stables and park campground, and onto Beaver Mountain. A big burn scar from the 2012 Fern Lake wildfire, still healing, slowed the 2021 inferno. 

Fifty-mile-per-hour winds drove sparks far ahead. A glacier-carved ridgeline in exactly the right spot on the northeast flank of Beaver Mountain proved another useful barrier. The burn area runs through ponderosa on the south side of the ridge, then stops like a knife’s edge at the wetter, denser lodgepole on the north side of the ridge. 

A culvert under Upper Beaver Meadows Road nearly shredded the catcher’s mitt concept. It had become clogged over the years with tumbleweeds, and licks of flame blew through the steel tunnel beneath the road, toward Deer Mountain. Firefighters hung out under trees thinned in the 2009 prescribed burn and used drip torches to light backburns, robbing the advancing flames of any remaining fuel. 

On the south side of Beaver Mountain, fire was trickling down alongside the Big Thompson and into…

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