Northern Colorado has seen a forest fire season like no other. In mid-August, the Cameron Peak Fire erupted near Chambers Lake, not far from the top of Cameron Pass. Hot dry conditions kept the fire burning and spreading. Over Labor Day weekend, high winds caused the fire to explode, spreading east at an alarming rate.
Returning from a backpacking trip in southern Wyoming, our return to town was marked with our first experience of apocalyptic skies. Light filtered through the smoke to turn the landscape an eerie red color. Cars turned on their headlights and street lamps lit as the darkness settled over town in mid-afternoon.
Salvation arrived in the form of a rain and snowstorm. Fort Collins received a few inches of snow, and the mountains received more. The threat receded… for now.
Late September and Early October
The snow melted and warmer temperatures returned. A second fire, the Mullen Fire ignited in southern Wyoming’s Savage Run Wilderness, quickly consuming the entire wilderness area and spreading northeast and south. Soon, it counted the Platte River Wilderness as its victim, and crossed the border into Colorado.
On October 14, a third fire, the East Troublesome Fire ignited in the woods west of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Throughout, the smoke in Fort Collins was terrible, and everyone traded tips on apps and websites providing air quality information.
Gale-force winds swept northern Colorado, and the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires both grew in size. One of our city’s natural areas burned to a crisp, and evacuations soared. The maps below show the fire growth over time. At this point, the Cameron Peak Fire became the largest fire in Colorado state history. It took only a few days after the East Troublesome Fire started before it became the second largest.
More winds caused the East Troublesome fire to surge. Sparks flew across the treeless Continental Divide, igniting another fire on the eastern flanks of Rocky Mountain National Park. The town of Estes Park was evacuated. In Fort Collins, brown clouds of smoke covered the sun.
Salvation arrived in the form of another snowstorm. This one dropped 13” of snow in town. Although as I write this in November the fires still smolder, this marked the end of serious fire threats.
It will take many years, perhaps decades, before the fire scars in Northern Colorado are erased. Hundreds of houses burned, and countless lives were disrupted. Hopefully it will be a long time before Colorado is threatened again by fires of this magnitude.