In Rocky Mountain National Park, Fire Gives and Takes

Fern Lake. | Photo: Courtesy NPSFern Lake. The very name beguiles, with its promise of soft green and cold blue, an alpine tableau high up in Rocky Mountain National Park.

A pacific landscape, one might think, and according to Enos Mills, the park's creative genius, that's how we are supposed to respond to it. After all, establishing such a sanctuary was the central reason why he and others fought for the park's preservation.

"A National Park is an island of safety in this riotous world," he averred in "Your National Parks," published two years after President Woodrow Wilson signed the park into law in 1915. "Splendid forests, the waterfalls that leap in glory, the wild flowers that charm and illuminate the earth, the wild sheep of the sky-line crags, and the beauty of the birds, all have places of refuge which parks provide."

Those humans in greatest need of this respite, Mills declared, were the swelling number of people crowding into early 20th-century cities, a sickly lot who would be invigorated by close contact with nature's salubrious scenery. "Blue Monday did not originate outdoors."

Maybe his claim for the virtues of high-country serenity was what led a gaggle of friends to gather in the park this past June for a long overdue reunion. Perhaps that's why we fixed on a trail called Fern Lake. It seemed to offer peace and quiet.

Peaceful, it was. Quiet, not so much -- this is a voluble crew. Still, we fell silent at the trailhead while reading a notice suggesting that whatever else we might see on the sun-drenched, pine-scented hike, we'd need to adjust our chromatic scale, factoring in more browns, blacks, and grays.

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WARNING

A wildfire burned through this area

Be alert for the following potential hazards

  • Falling trees and limbs
  • Unstable slopes and rolling material
  • Burned out stump holes
  • Areas that still may be smoldering
  • Bridges and other trail structures that may be damaged
  • Off-trail travel is not recommended in burned areas

The sign didn't lie. Even as we climbed up the rutted trail through stands of mature ponderosa pine, picked our way over lichen-stained boulders, and spotted a mountain bluebird dart into a spray of long, thin needles, even while resting by a thunderous white-rushed cataract, the markers of fire were inescapable.

Across the valley to our south we could glimpse intensely burned acres whose wind-blown brands had sailed across the lake below to land in the high ground we were moving through. The damage here was patchy. Like sentinels, individual trees -- some crisp black, others singed so badly that their needles had turned a bright orange -- stood out in stark relief among those that had escaped the blasting heat; others lay crown down on the rocky slope, tumbled tombstones.

A pungent aroma, a mere hint at first, strengthened as later we swung down Cub Lake trail; you could almost taste the smoke. The pathway scrambles just below a ridgeline and within minutes we found ourselves in a moonscape of carbonized trees - canted, twisted, and toppled. All that remained of the small bridge spanning Wuh Creek, gushing that day with snowmelt, was an unsteady metal frame. Everywhere, the soil appears to have been vaporized, the humus and the microbes it sustained incinerated.

Even so, along the creek's banks new growth was pushing up, fresh foliage capturing the sun's energy to fuel the growth of its roots that would help it anchor itself more firmly in the stony ground. Bit by bit, this complex process of photosynthesis will allow the forest to recover, from understory to canopy.

Fire's regenerative agency was not uppermost on the minds of firefighters in late November when the Fern Lake fire tore through the Cub Lake district.

Seven weeks earlier, the blaze had begun in Forest Canyon through which cuts the Big Thompson River. Seen from above, a vantage point we would gain the next day from a scenic pullout along Trail Ridge Road, the canyon is a sweep of orange, green, and red. Two reciprocal forces have been reshaping the forest that stretched beneath our feet. The bark beetle infestation has devastated the drainage, as it has across the state; and the Rockies, like the rest of the west, has been reeling from years of drought.

Into this tinder-dry situation walked a camper. The National Park Service suspects that this individual lit an illegal fire whose flames were not doused well enough or which escaped. In any event, on October 9 smoke was spotted, downwind campgrounds and trails were evacuated, and the agency and its firefighting partners began to map out the best way to manage the burn.

Fire fighters perform mop up operations on November 1, 2012. | Photo: Courtesy NPS

Management was complicated by the severe conditions of the ground. This particular canyon had not burned in over 800 years (a not unusual condition for high-elevation woodlands). The absence of fire had made the canyon floor quite impenetrable, too.

Estimating that the pine beetles had killed more than half the standing trees, the Park Service in addition worried about the hazards firefighters would face if they were airlifted into the area where the "dead and down fuel layer...exceeds twenty feet deep." Gaining a foothold in this treacherous terrain would be impossible, and would be made all the more unstable given the powerful winds that regularly buffet the steep-walled valley. Forest Canyon was a firetrap.

For the next month and a half, firefighters did what they could, fighting along the periphery of what was a relatively small fire of 1500 acres or so, using ridges to anchor their fire breaks, and where possible making use of water-dropping planes and helicopters, although air turbulence and the tight canyon limited their utility.

This safety-first strategy was sorely tested during the evening of November 30 as strong winds careened down Forest Canyon, reenergizing the fire. Within 35 minutes, its flames blew out three miles, more than doubling the acreage consumed. Its advance into low-lying Bear Lake and Moraine Park was only slowed after firefighters sparked backfires. It was smothered several days later by a snowstorm, but not before it had torched the Cub Lake watershed, making skeletal its once-arboreal beauty.

So unusual was this conflagration that at first blush it does not seem relevant to other settings. After all, this blaze erupted outside what is considered the Rockies' fairly short fire season and thereby offered a serious challenge to its successful suppression.

Each September, according to a Park Service report, "the fire community enters into its 'shoulder season.' During this time, as with many seasonal occupations, staffing begins to reduce dramatically, leaving relatively few resources available by October. Additionally, equipment such as helicopters and planes are less available as they are being serviced and maintained for the next year's season." Consequently the agency had to get creative about securing a funding stream and establishing new interagency partnerships to cobble together air support, a process that "took much longer than usual."

Yet this worst-case scenario might be the new normal.

If so, we might also be forced to give up the idea that there is an off-season for fire. Across the west, regardless of elevation, fires are erupting earlier, running longer, and intensifying in force. Consider the explosive firestorms that ripped through Ventura County's coastal range in April and May, and which acted like October infernos consuming bone-dry vegetation; CAL Fire reports that the Golden State is on a record pace for the number of wildfires and the summer has only just started.

Colorado is also under siege. The ferocity of the Black Forest Fire and West Fork blaze in the Centennial State's southern mountains, like the devastatingly fatal Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona, with others in New Mexico and the intermountain states, make it clear that Fern Lake fire, for all its unique properties, may not be exceptional.

This unsettling possibility was in the back of the Park Service's mind when in mid-June 2013 a lightning-ignited fire started in Big Meadows sector of Rocky Mountain National Park. Even though the agency "preferred to allow naturally occurring fires to burn for the benefit of the resource and future fire breaks," the Estes Park News reported, it was concerned about "drought conditions and reduced interagency resources" that would limit its capacity to fight a "long duration fire." Remembering what happened in Forest Canyon, the Park Service moved quickly to suppress the flare up.

Across the hotter and drier American west, this quick-strike tactic is becoming standard operating procedure, though it is a necessarily fraught compromise. For in slowing the fires' spread we will be retarding their key ecological function -- to regenerate the region's distressed forests, to make green again these dark woods.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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