Small Fire at Rocky Mountain National Park Draws Plenty of Attention

(Top)Helicopter operations on the Beaver Mountain Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park on July 18. Note the large number of standing dead trees in the area. Photo by Ann Schonlau. (Bottom) Hand crews complete containment of the fire. NPS photo.

In the aftermath of major fires near Fort Collins and Colorado Springs earlier this summer, smoke rising from a heavily wooded mountainside in Rocky Mountain National Park last week wasn't a welcome sight. Park officials took no chances andpromptly attacked the lightning-caused blaze.

The smoke was spotted on the afternoon of July 18 on the slopes of Beaver Mountain, located on the east side of the park. The area is rugged and heavily timbered and about a two-hour hike from the nearest road. An aerial overflight was ordered promptly to assess the situation, while a ground crew headed for the area.

Shortly after 5 p.m. the park's public information officer, Kyle Patterson, put out the first news release on the situation, and the carefully worded statement offers a hint at the jittery nerves for area residents. It began, "There is a SMALL fire in Rocky Mountain National Park..."

Area Residents On Edge About Wildfires

That emphasis on "SMALL" was calculated to calm fears in the aftermath of last month's High Park Fire near Fort Collins and the catastrophic Waldo Canyon Fire in the Colorado Springs area.

The resort community of Estes Park, adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park, had already experienced a close brush with a similar disaster on June 23, when a fire in a structure just outside the park spread quickly to the surrounding forest. Despite a quick response, that blaze, dubbed the Woodland Heights fire, destroyed 22 residences and 2 outbuildings, and scorched 27 acres.

The initial report to the media and public at 5:12 p.m. was promising. The overflight found the fire was about one-half acre in size and located in a heavily timbered drainage bottom, but was "currently on the ground and no trees have torched." A Type III helicopter (one of the smaller variety) was preparing to do bucket drops, using water from Lake Estes in Estes Park. A park ground crew was hiking in and expected to reach the scene in about 45 minutes.

Recent Weather Makes A Difference

Perhaps the best news for this situation came from weather reports during the past two weeks: over five inches of rain had fallen in the area during that period, so the extreme fire behavior experienced elsewhere in the region in recent weeks was not expected.

As a precaution, one trail—the Ute Trail from Trail Ridge Road to Upper Beaver Meadows Road—and the Upper Beaver Meadows Road were closed temporarily.

An update shortly before midnight provided even more promising news.

Bucket drops of water had continued throughout the afternoon, and an 18-person ground crew consisting of NPS and U. S. Forest Service personnel had completed a hand-line around the fire. The size of the blaze, now officially named the Beaver Mountain Fire, was confirmed to be about one-half acre. Mop-up work began on July 19, the fire was officially declared "fully contained" on July 20, and the closed road and trail were reopened.

This Small Fire Drew Unusual Amounts of Attention

Similar small wildland fires are a common occurrence all across the West, and most have limited impact on resources and people. The fact that a fire affecting less than an acre was considered newsworthy by media outlets throughout the area is a measure of public concern about wildfires in Colorado at the present time.

Rocky Mountain's Fire Management Mission Statement summarizes the park's "big picture" view of fire: "To balance the ecological role of fire and other natural disturbances with the protection of human life and safety."

Under more favorable conditions—from both an environmental and public relations standpoint—similar lightning-caused and slow-moving blazes would attract a lot less attention from the public, media, and fire personnel. The park's fire management policy notes, "Wildland fire use is the term used to describe naturally ignited fires that are allowed to burn in certain areas under carefully monitored conditions to benefit park resources."

In this case, the prompt response and aggressive attack on the Beaver Mountain Fire was the right call—and the incident offers some insights into the complex decision-making factors that come into play for fire managers every time the word from the field is, "We have a confirmed smoke."

If you'd like more information on the subject of wildland fire, including a glossary of fire terminology, you'll find plenty of resources on the NPS Fire and Aviation Management Website.