An infrared flight over Forest Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park has confirmed that the Fern Lake Fire is officially out, according to a press release from park officials issued June 25. The Fern Lake Fire started in Rocky Mountain National Park from an illegal campfire on Oct. 9, 2012, in steep and rugged Forest Canyon.
Firefighters from across the country battled the fire for two months, however Park fire managers knew the Fern Lake Fire was going to be a long-term event. There was limited opportunity to fight the fire directly because of high winds, steep terrain, and beetle-killed trees.
On the night of Nov. 30, and the early morning of Dec. 1, strong winds pushed the fire more than three miles in thirty-five minutes, prompting evacuation orders. Through careful planning and rapid action, firefighters successfully prevented the fire from progressing across Bear Lake Road and leaving the park. The nearly 3,500 acre blaze was temporarily halted by an early December snowstorm. The last time smoke was seen on the Fern Lake Fire was January 7.
This high-elevation winter fire was unprecedented in park history, according to a press release from park officials. Large fires in high elevations of the Rocky Mountains are different from 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 a dead and down fuel layer that in some areas exceeds 20 feet deep. Mountain pine beetles had 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.
Although the Fern Lake Fire has been called out, the Big Meadows Fire on the west side of the park is still active. It started on June 10 from lightning, and is 95 percent contained. It is expected to be active throughout the summer in a remote area consisting of steep, rugged terrain with over 80 percent beetle-killed trees.
Wildfire experts expect these types of fires to continue at this level unless conditions change. Continued drought will intensify the number of fires in our forests. The trend indicates larger and more rapidly spreading fires. The number of acres burned nationally has been at historic highs for six of the last nine years. There is no indication that this trend will reverse soon.
These fires serve as a reminder that local communities exist in a fire-adapted ecosystem. The best to do to prepare homes for wildfire and to keep our firefighters safe is to utilize FireWise concepts. Go to FireWise.org for assistance or contact your local fire department. Preparations should also be made for ourselves and our families for possible evacuation by pre-planning and preparing what to take when we have to leave. Visit Ready.gov for further information. Register all phones and email addresses for emergency notifications through your county emergency communications system at GCEmergency.com. Connect with friends and neighbors to be each other’s backup plan in case there are technical difficulties with phone systems and evacuation orders.
With the increased hazards due to beetle-killed forests, firefighter tactics have become more indirect to ensure their safety. As firefighting resources diminish across the country the need to be increasingly mindful of preparedness in our communities and safe practices when fighting fires in the park increase.