ESTES PARK, Colo. — In recent years, massive wildfires have nearly destroyed entire towns – Paradise, California – Malden, Washington – and Gatlinburg, Tennessee are a few of those instances.
Fire managers at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) said we came very close to adding Estes Park to that list last October.
“What we’re seeing today with the extreme fire behavior, whole towns burning – we need to think bigger and more extreme,” said Mike Lewelling, fire management officer at RMNP.
In 2016, the Chimney Tops 2 fire started on the edge of Great Smokey Mountains National Park and ran into Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, TN destroying more than 2,000 homes and killing 14 people.
Lewelling was on the review team for that fire.
“And as I was looking at that fire, I was going – that’s Rocky,” said Lewelling.
He said the way high winds fueled that fire while mountain drainages guided it right into the communities triggered visions of how his hometown of Estes Park could meet a similar fate.
His experience at the Chimney Tops 2 fire prompted a workshop back home in Colorado aimed at discovering the worst-case scenario for Estes Park.
He and the Estes Valley fire chief assembled a group of fire behavior experts, meteorologists and college professors. They called the meeting "preparing for what we've never seen before." It's become a regular event as the group has assembled on two more occasions since 2017.
One of the tools they used at the workshop was a fire behavior model. They ran different simulations with fire starts in different locations around the park. One spot was identified as the worst-case scenario.
The model showed a fire on the southwest side of Deer Mountain – the East Troublesome fire spotted over into that exact spot on Oct. 23, 2020.
“I was absolutely certain that we were going to see Estes burn,” said Lewelling.
Fighting Future Fires
Lewelling said he's been fighting the East Troublesome fire for nearly 20 years. Mitigation work like tree thinning and prescribed burns is a way to fight future fires.
"Fires move too fast these days, they are too big and the flames are too high," said Lewelling. "Combine that with the dangers of putting firefighters in beetle kill. Sometimes it's too dangerous to go offensive with a fire like East Troublesome."
He said RMNP has a fuel mitigation master plan for 20 years, focusing on thinning fuels around the perimeter of the property.
They do thinning where they physically remove trees by hand and machine, along with dead and down fuels.
They do prescribed burns when they can. And he said they do broadcast burns where they burn the ground fuels along with the lower portion of the conifer trees. That helps prevent ground fires from climbing the trees to become crown fires.
He said a broadcast burn they did on the south side of Deer Mountain was instrumental in stopping East Troublesome.
"We never really know for sure how a fire is going to react when it hits our treatments," said Lewelling. "But it's a good bet it will at least slow it down enough to give our guys a shot."
He said it was a combination of backburns done by the Alpine Hot Shots while the fire slowed in the mitigated areas that stopped East Troublesome just before it reached town.
Help from the Weather
They also got some help from a few miraculous weather events.
On the morning of Oct. 22, a powerful cold front pressed into Colorado from the northeast. The cold air made it all the way to the Continental Divide. It was sunny, warm and dry in Grand Lake west of the Divide, and it was cold and foggy on the eastside near Estes Park.
"I believe that fog bank played a significant role in saving Estes Park," said Lewelling. "The fog took the energy out of the fire."
Then as the fog started to dissipate, the fire came back to life, but he said that the wind shifted in eddies near the fire front. Instead of west winds pushing the fire closer to Estes Park, he said the winds were more easterly.
And then finally, a foot to a foot and a half of snow fell on the fire on Oct. 25 putting a end to the progress of East Troublesome.
“We take the preparedness and skill into account, but there is some luck to it,” he said.
One last factor that helped slow East Troublesome down was the old burn scar from the 2012 Fern Lake Fire. Lewelling said that after East Troublesome jumped the Continental Divide, it made a run towards the Cub and Fern Lake area.
"The fire slowed a lot when it hit that scar," he said. "It had to completely regain its momentum and finally found a route across to the north and to the south of Cub Lake."
The north branch of East Troublesome was the part that made a run at Deer Mountain. Lewelling said that if it had more steam at that point, the fire might have been able to up and over, and then directly into Estes Park.
The south branch of the fire was was stopped at Steep Mountain.
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