Fern Lake Fire, Caused By Untended Campfire, Finally Declared Out In Rocky Mountain National Park

The Fern Lake Fern, pictured here spewing billowing smoke on the day it was started, has officially been declared out. NPS photo.

Nearly nine months after it was started by an illegal campfire, the Fern Lake Fire has been declared out in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Park officials made that announcement Tuesday after an infrared flight over Forest Canyon failed to find any hot spots. The fire was sparked by an illegal campfire on October 9, 2012, in steep and rugged Forest Canyon, a park release said; the responsible party has not been found.

Firefighters from across the country battled the fire for two months. Park fire managers knew from the beginning that the 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 November 30, and the early morning of December 1, strong winds pushed the fire more than three miles in 35 minutes, prompting evacuation orders. Through careful planning and rapid action, firefighters successfully prevented the fire from progressing across the 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, said park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson.

"Large fires in high elevations of the Rocky Mountains are different from many other areas of the country," she wrote in a release. "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 twenty 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."

The park staff extended its deep gratitude for the interagency support it received from federal, state, and local agencies in Colorado and elsewhere. "We are also thankful for the support we received from our neighbors and the community of Estes Park," said Ms. Patterson.

Although the Fern Lake Fire has been declared out, the Big Meadows Fire on the west side of the park remains 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," noted Ms. Patterson. "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."