Current Park Fires
Fern Lake Fire
The Fern Lake Fire started in Rocky Mountain National Park on Tuesday, October 9, 2012, in steep and rugged Forest Canyon. Firefighters from across the country battled the Fern Lake Fire for two months before the spread of the nearly 3,500-acre blaze was temporarily halted by an early December snowstorm. The high-elevation winter fire eventually drew a national Type 1 Incident Management Team to Estes Park. This fire is unprecedented in park history.
Large fires in high elevations of the Rocky Mountains are different than many other areas of the country. They are infrequent and have the potential for high consequences. Largely inaccessible, Forest Canyon had been untouched by fire for at least 800 years. A long-term drought had left fuels tinder-dry in the forest fuel layer that sometimes exceeds twenty feet deep. Mountain pine beetles have killed half the trees in the canyon, with every compromised tree posing a hazard for firefighters. The typically windy conditions in the canyon only increased the danger.
Park fire managers knew from the beginning it was going to be a long-term event. There was limited ability to fight the fire directly because of high winds, steep terrain, and beetle-killed trees. Firefighter safety is the park's number one priority. The high winds impacted both air operations and safety of firefighters.
Weather, wind, and the location of the fire limited our chances to drop water. The location of this fire at a high elevation and along the Continental Divide in a steep canyon with strong winds made direct air and ground attacks on this fire challenging and dangerous. When water was dropped, its effectiveness was often limited without firefighters on the ground. Frozen lakes and the ability of helicopters to carry water at high altitude posed additional challenges.
Despite these challenges we were able to drop thousands of gallons of water to contain portions of the fire line. Beginning on October 9 through December 6, a total of 248,400 gallons of water were dropped on the fire. Single-engine air tankers were part of the initial attack, but since the fire area serves as a municipal watershed, use of fire retardant was restricted and an ineffective tool.
Wildfire experts anticipate that we can expect fires to continue at this level unless conditions change. We can expect continued drought, which will intensify the number of fires in our forests. The trend indicates larger and more rapidly spreading fires can be expected. The number of acres burned nationally has been at historic highs, six of the last nine years. There is no indication that this trend will reverse soon.
So when will the fire be put out?
The fire has continued to burn even underneath a covering of snow. It will not be called "out" until no smoke or heat is detectable. In areas of heavy fuels such as deep in Forest Canyon, this will require heavy precipitation in the form of rain or snow over an extended period of time. It is possible that smoke will still be visible in the late winter and early spring, especially if this winter is as dry as last winter.
Click here for answers to a variety of questions pertaining to the Fern Lake Fire.
Did You Know?
Your entrance fees make improvement projects at Rocky possible. The park has built vault toilets, hired shuttle buses, and built trails with this money. More...