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.
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.
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 Moraine Park meadow. In summer, ribbons of side streams sodden the ground. But this was late October, and dry grasses folded crisply under fire-driven winds. Lewelling put fire rigs and crews at Bear Lake Road bridge to protect the YMCA, though he didn’t know exactly how they would.
Fire managers also made the painful decision to use heavy machinery to cut a fire line across the eastern tip of Beaver Meadows, within sight of park headquarters. They still flinch when they describe this. Tearing up nationally significant ground is not what rangers are about. There is no national parks uniform patch celebrating bulldozers. The park superintendent made the final call herself.
On the night of Oct. 23, a foot and a half of snow started to fall east of the divide. Another moment when “chance” met “prepared.”
In 2016, a fire in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park ran out into nearby towns, eventually killing 14 people. Lewelling and the Estes Park fire chief studied that fire and war-gamed similar scenarios for Colorado. Their models showed wildfires “running right through Estes Park,” Lewelling said. They invited local officials to a workshop, which they called “Preparing for Things We’ve Never Seen Before.”
“We need to think bigger,” Lewelling said last week, standing in Beaver Meadows. “And more extreme.”
Also, he added, “We could use more aspen.” That’s when he introduced Koren Nydick, Rocky Mountain National Park’s chief of resource stewardship.
Moose fences and affordable housing for beavers
A chief of resource stewardship at a national park is the defender of flora, fauna and artifacts. Nydick is the one who cringed hardest when the bulldozers came out. She won’t even insult weeds by calling them “invasive.” She prefers “exotic.”
Nydick is also looking for more aspen in the eastern, “catcher’s mitt” end of the park. Aspen groves and willows hold more moisture than lodgepole, and protect soggy ground at their feet. The wetter wood and ground resist fire.
Natural fires throughout history have replaced pine with faster-growing, opportunistic aspen. But constantly putting out rejuvenating fires inside the park has narrowed biodiversity beyond even a steward’s appreciation. Another phrase for this kind of long-term firefighting through restoring diversity is creating a “patchwork.”
Elk and moose also like willow and aspen. They like them inside their stomachs.
So if Nydick’s crews are going to encourage new groves for biodiversity and firebreaks, they also have to put fences around them. Moraine Park is now ringed with islands of fenced willow and budding aspen. The elk that tourists love to Instagram have relentlessly mowed down everything else.
Beavers also love aspen, with the paradoxical advantage that they can also create aspen. When they cut down trees — like aspen — and build dams, the pools back up to soak ground that grows more aspen.
But while metro-area beavers get so busy that urban wildlife watchers have considered birth control, beavers apparently find Moraine Park too dry for settlement. Nydick and colleagues are trying affordable beaver housing in other drainages, using plywood or clumps of branches. If their social engineering proves successful, they’ll try it in Moraine Park.
Nydick had evacuated her family from Estes Park to Fort Collins on Thursday, Oct. 22, heeding the warnings from Lewelling and others. Then she went back to work at Beaver Meadows, where the Visitors Center became a mustering area for park employees not directly on the fire lines.
She and her team advised helicopter crews on which high country lakes they could safely dip buckets for fire suppression runs. They coached hotshots to avoid back-burning slash piles atop sensitive swaths of wildflowers that would be sterilized by high heat. They asked cleanup crews to leave burned-out snags standing if they looked like good critter habitat.
As Lewelling’s Beaver Meadows defense intensified on Oct. 23, Nydick watched Park Superintendent Darla Sidles give the nod to the bulldozers. Nydick immediately started planning for grass and wildflower seeds she could scatter in spring along the fireline scar, which in high and dry conditions might be visible for a decade.
She also studied the maps and the weather conditions. Wildfire speeds that can be terrifying to those who need to evacuate a town can be reassuring to wildlife biologists. Fire that sits still and bakes the soil turns biodiversity to white ash. Fire in more of a hurry leaves behind black scars, yes, but also intact root balls just underneath and enzymes that can launch regrowth the next spring.
The overlay maps produced by Nydick’s department show “Soil Burn Severity” from both East Troublesome and Cameron Peak, colored from cool green to bright red. Last week, Nydick stood on blackened lower slopes of Green Mountain, on the park’s western side near Grand Lake. The soil was pitch black, but the colors on the map she held were mostly green and yellow, for low to moderate severity.
Nydick was surrounded by swaying, jet-black sticks of burned-over lodgepole. On a 90-degree day, they smelled like they were still smoldering. Though it was declared contained on Nov. 30, East Troublesome has never officially been declared “out,” Lewelling said. Satellites and work crews still keep a watchful eye for potential flare ups.
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Nydick took out a garden trowel and poked into the black. White ash means it’s hopeless, she said. This, she added, she could work with. Nydick immediately pulled out a clump of surviving lupine root, and then pointed to a green lupine shoot already straining upward in the June sun.
Lewelling, standing nearby, shook his head at the sight of dozens of lodgepoles, not fallen over, not standing burnt in place, but arched over in perfect curves. The forest managers’ theory is that extreme heat loosened the fibers inside the trunks while the 100 mph winds bent them over, like a candlestick in a heat wave.
He has worked in national parks across the country for 30 years. Pointing to the eerie tree arches still genuflecting to the power of the wildfire, he said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
On the hillside dense with fallen lodgepole, Nydick said the burned trunks will stay in place. Partly because they are in official wilderness, as much of the park has been designated, and therefore can’t be touched by mechanized skidders. But also because the fallen trunks keep serving a purpose in the face of potential mass erosion.
“They’re keeping the hillside on the hillside,” she said.
Nydick is asked whether the combination of heavy black and budding green makes her feel optimistic or pessimistic.
She pauses. “I have a mix of emotions,” Nydick finally said. “This is a lodgepole forest. This is what lodgepole forests do, for thousands of years.”
She pauses again, then says, “I do feel kind of sorry for Doug.”
A moment for mourning, an opening for reinvention
Doug Parker is trails program supervisor for Rocky Mountain Park, standing 20 feet up a trail he and his crew rebuilt from scratch just two years ago that is now a tangle of hand-cut steps turned to charcoal.
He is, in fact, pretty depressed.
“I had a couple moments this winter,” Parker mumbled.
It’s hard for Parker to let go of the fact that he stood on this same spot on Oct. 20, the day before East Troublesome turned into a blazing derecho. He’d been hiking the Green Mountain trails to check recent work. The fire was 18 miles away. He smelled a little smoke. It was a good day.
By Oct. 23, the worst of the fire had passed over the divide to the east, and west side fire crews were putting out spot fires and assessing the damage to hundreds of homes around Grand Lake. Smoke was clearing to reveal the rubble of park losses on the west side, too.
When the fire hit Grand Lake on Oct. 21, park employees housed in aging lodges and cabins near the Kawuneeche entrance had 8 minutes’ warning to leave. They fled east over Trail Ridge Road — a narrow, sheer-drop nightmare on a good day — with burning lodgepoles tipping onto their cars as they tore out.
Their rustic tinderbox sleeping quarters melted to the ground. Only their fieldstone fireplaces are still standing. Onahu Lodge was a favorite bunk for Parker’s crews, who could crack open a frosty beverage on the porch after a brutal day scraping trails, gazing across the Colorado River at the Never Summer Range.
The visitors’ entrance station crumpled in on itself.
Then the fire raced up Parker’s meticulously and painfully constructed trails.
Between the dual assaults by the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires, Rocky Mountain lost 17 hiking bridges and 31 miles of trails, 15% of all its paths. Each of those paths is the only way to safely access enormous sections of the park, and large areas will be closed to visitors for what could be years until Parker’s crews sort it all out. More than 40 of the park’s 270 coveted backcountry camping spots will be off limits this summer.
Up and down Green Mountain, for just one example, carefully placed anti-erosion logs burned off, leaving only charred 12-inch bolts thrusting uselessly into the thin air. Parker points to carefully placed boulders used as trail boundaries that cracked and flaked in the heat of the fire. On the Fern and Cub lakes side of the park, 10,000 to 20,000 people a month hiked trails that are now closed.
For those who do plan to hike on the burned trails already reopening, Parker has some advice.
“It will look very different. It’s also very hot. Bring chapstick. Be ready to get dirty,” he said. “It’s your opportunity to look like a wildland firefighter.”
This summer, Parker oversees crews whose ranks have now ballooned to 94 trail cutters. Managers are drawing on the Youth Conservation Corps and teams loaned by other national parks. They won’t fell every burned tree, instead striving to create a safety “box” over the trails that’s 6-feet wide and 12-feet high.
In many of the burned-out spots, trail crews will be parched by temperatures 10 to 15 degrees warmer than normal. Their previous shade was destroyed by East Troublesome.
Those bridges, though. The bridges really bother Parker. One lost in the Cameron Peak section was a 35-foot multi-use beauty called the Corral Creek Trailhead Bridge. Thinking of it while on the Green Mountain trail, Parker shakes off the bad thoughts and focuses on the present. Park maintenance crews have already rebuilt the span and dropped it in place with a helicopter.
One thing he likes about the new bridges is that the railings are made from the trunks of trees felled inside the park because they were leaning over picnic areas or blocking a road.
On his better days, Parker focuses on the chance to rethink where trails should run and how they can best serve the public and the wildlife. Whole mountainsides will be sliding around in post-fire rains and snow. Contours will change. Trails could avoid burned areas or go through them on purpose as an educational exercise. They can shape the park experience for decades. Park officials are encouraging creativity.
Rock and mudslides can be grim, he said. But they have also created thrilling waterfalls in new places.
“It’s rejuvenating,” Parker says, gazing at a few green ferns climbing up a charred trunk. “You gotta keep that in the back of your mind.”