ESTES PARK, Colo. (KDVR) — For the first time, officials in Rocky Mountain National Park are showing damage to some of the hardest hit areas of the park and sharing new insight into what happened during the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak Fires.
“I was absolutely certain we were going to see Estes burn,” Rocky Mountain National Park Fire Operations Manager Mike Lewelling said during a tour of the park Thursday.
Due to the extreme fire behavior of the East Troublesome Fire on October 21-23, 2020, Lewelling said he was confident that fire would take over the tourist town at the base of the park.
That did not happen.
“We’ve been fighting this fire for 20 years,” Lewelling said.
By that, he means that park staff have been working on mitigation efforts within areas of concern for the last two decades. A lot of that prep work played a direct role in helping stop the East Troublesome Fire from making a direct run into town. One of the areas their work proved vital was Deer Mountain.
“We take the preparedness and skill into account, but there is some luck to it,” Lewelling said.
Rare weather event helped save Estes Park
For the first time, he explained how a rare weather event helped firefighters stop the fire in its tracks and saved Estes Park.
“We had this crazy fog bank roll up from the plains and park itself against the Continental Divide,” he said. “And this doesn’t happen very often.”
In two decades of service with Rocky Mountain National Park, Lewelling said he can recall the fog phenomenon occurring just twice.
“The fog took the energy out of the fire,” he said.
‘Thousands and thousands of trees down’
While Mother Nature helped fire crews contain East Troublesome, that fire and Cameron Peak had already wreaked havoc on the park.
“We have seen thousands and thousand of trees down along the trails,” Trails Program Supervisor Doug Parker said.
According to Parker, 15% of the park’s trail system was damaged in the fires. That equates to three out of every 20 miles.
“That’s a significant portion of our trail infrastructure,” Parker said.
Since the fall, park staff have been working to rebuild bridges and other trail infrastructure. So far, they have been able to reopen about half of the front-country trails including portions of Fern Lake Trail.
“This area here was a priority for us. Ten to 20 thousand people hike the Fern, Cub lake area monthly,” Parker said.
Their work will continue throughout the summer, when they hope to have a majority of trails reopened to the public.
‘It’s gonna look very different’
On the west side of Rocky Mountain, it is a different story.
“This is some of the hottest, most destroyed sections of trails that we have on the west side of the park,” Parker said.
Green Mountain Trail in particular is essentially destroyed. Parker and his team are assessing whether or not they will ever be able to reopen it in its original state or if they need to reroute the trail.
He cautions visitors that parts of the park may look very different than they have in years past. Burned areas will be hotter, drier and sunnier.
“It’s gonna look very different. The vegetation, the trees you’re used to see hiking on the trail may not be there any longer. It may be completely black,” Parker said.