Updated: Big Meadows Fire Ballooning In Size At Rocky Mountain National Park

From the sky, the Big Meadows Fire can be seen cupped by mountains studded with beetle-killed timber. NPS photo taken June 11.

A wildfire sparked by lightning in the backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park was burning across 400 or so acres Wednesday. Fire bosses were working on a strategy to contain the blaze on the western side of the Continental Divide and away from Trail Ridge Road.

The "Big Meadows Fire" was burning on the west side of the national park roughly 4.5 miles from the Green Mountain Trailhead in a rugged, steep landscape dense in trees killed by bark beetles. Due to the great number of dry, dead trees, an indirect attack was planned with the intent of holding the fire east of Trail Ridge Road (Highway 34), west of the Continental Divide, and north of Tonahutu Creek. No structures or communities were at risk, according to park officials.

The forecast called for winds between 8-12 mph with gusts as high as 20 mph with a slight chance of a thunderstorm after 2 p.m. Those conditions were a slight improvement over Tuesday's weather, when the winds gusted to 40 mph, park officials said.

Battling the wildfire is particularly difficult due to other fires in Colorado and elsewhere in the country. U.S. Forest Service officials were boosting their capabilities of responding to the fires by mobilizing two Department of Defense C-130s equipped with "Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems," known as MAFFS, to assist with wildfire suppression efforts in Colorado and elsewhere in the West as needed.

The systems will be provided by the 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, and based in Colorado Springs. Forest Service officials said the aircraft would begin flying wildfire suppression missions as soon as safe and effective operations can be established.

“We are experiencing an uptick in wildfire activity and we are mobilizing MAFFS to ensure that we have adequate air tanker capability as we confront explosive wildfire conditions in Colorado, New Mexico, and elsewhere in the West,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Maintaining adequate aerial firefighting capability is critical to provide support to, and enhance the safety of, the firefighters on the ground who are working so hard to suppress wildfires that are threatening lives, homes, infrastructure, and valuable natural and cultural resources.”

At Rocky Mountain National Park, officials temporarily closed seven trails due to the Big Meadows Fire: the Onahu Trail, the Green Mountain Trail, the lower Tonahutu Trail, the Tonahutu Spur Trail, the Grand Lake Lodge Spur Trail, the Timber Lake Trail and the trail which branches toward Mount Ida from Milner Pass. All major roads and facilities in the park were open, as were those linking the communities of Grand Lake and Estes Park.

The park set up a recorded Fire Information Line at (970) 586-1381 that will be updated when information on the Big Meadows Fire is available.

Fire managers Tuesday called in additional air and ground resources, including more helicopters that can dump water on the flames and hotshot crews to battle the flames on the ground.

Comments

Isn't fire a natural enemy of beetles? Is there a reason the fire is being suppressed rather than used as a management tool?

It's being suppressed regardless of the good it might do because of the fire situation statewide, the committment of resources that will have to be made should it emerge later this summer as a threat and because the political climate will not allow for 'resource management fires' during existing conditions.

The managers have made the right call. Put the damn thing out....shades of 1988 and lessons learned.

Lee - You're correct that naturally-caused fires can be a good resource management tool, but I suspect the decision to try to suppress this one is based on several factors.

The Fern Lake Fire that threatened the town of Estes Park last fall is still fresh in the memory of park officials and local residents, and the combination of current weather (hot, dry, windy) and abundant fuel from all those standing beetle-killed trees seems to create the potential for quick growth of this fire. Local news reports also indicate other major fires in the region (including one near Colorado Springs) are putting a strain on availability of fire crews and other resouces, so if they can't catch this one pretty soon, it has the potential to become a major incident.

Jim and Mike, you're both right. I was not thinking very well this morning.