Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Colorado Wildfire--High Park, near Fort Collins, CO

by Maggie Sefton

Please check www.9news.com  for actual photos of High Park Wildfire.  Photos I've posted here are of past Colorado wildfires----

This is the One We Have Always Dreaded.  

Those of us who live in this beautiful area of Colorado treasure our rugged forested canyons.  Since Colorado is a semi-arid state, we have regular cycles of drought and snow abundance.  Last year our snowpack by late spring was over 200% normal.  This year, thanks to La Nina, we're in a deep drought, only 25% normal snowpack.  We're bone dry.  But we've been lucky here in Northern Colorado.  We've escaped wildfires in the Cache la Poudre and Rist Canyons  along the northern edge of Fort Collins for the 24 years I've been here.  My friends who've been here since the 60s have never seen one either.  Lightning started this fire in a very rugged area of Rist Canyon (I call this Bellevue Canyon in the Kelly Flynn mysteries).  With the hundreds of thunderstorms we have every spring/summer/fall, lightning strikes cause the majority of wildfires in Colorado.  Other times, we've dodged bullets with smaller, easier to contain flare-ups.

Not this time.  Lightning strikes came almost every night last week as thunderstorms rumbled thru northern CO bringing no rain but plenty of strikes.  Apparently a strike late Thursday night started this.  And in the bone dry tinder that are our forests this summer, it started burning but no one saw it until Sat morning.  Small, only 100 acres.  But the wind gusts started up, with a cold front moving in that brought strong gusty winds Sat afternoon & Sun afternoon.  Bone dry with no rain, the forests are like kindling.  I had a book signing at B&N Ft Collins Saturday.  A bookseller told me there was a wildfire in Rist Canyon.  I felt my heart skip a beat.  I went to the large windows and saw the huge white smoke plume rising, a sure sign fire was burning trees beneath it.  It was nearly 1000 acres.  But the Winds whipped up.  By evening it had doubled to over 2000 acress.  Later that night, I stared at the red clouds over the ridges.  Huge dark red and black clouds.  The fire was growing.

This fire proved to be unlike any other.  Normally wildfires "lay down" at night.  This one didn't.  Everyone woke up Sunday morning to find that it had burned all night and now was over 12,000 acres and had gone over the ridges of Rist canyon into Poudre Canyon.  People were evacuated from both canyons to nearby schools and other locations, animals went to animal shelter & livestock to larger facilities at the County exhibition and event center, The Ranch.  People had to hurry from their homes, not knowing if they would ever see them again.  Canyon fires are capricious.  They burn in some spots and not in others as they spread, leaping from one tall pine tree to another in what is called "crowning."  They will leave one spot untouched, one house intact, and burn another.  Not unlike tornadoes in their capricious destructive behavior. 

Smoke smell was very strong by Sunday because the winds were driving the smoke and the fire towards the ridges closer to Fort Collins. Plus wind gusts still spread the fire so that it covered one mile every hour firefighters said.  We had 250 firefighters and every tanker around Colorado dumping water and fire retardant.  But Monday morning they announced fire was at 38,000 acres and growing.  And containment was still ZERO.  

Driving along the interstate outside Ft Collins Monday morning, I looked west toward the foothills and gasped.  The fire had come over the ridge of Redstone canyon which is next to Horsetooth reservoir, that beautiful elongated lake that borders the western edge of Fort Collins.    

I saw three white smoke plumes rising from the ridge.  The smoke was curling up in the way it does when there's fire beneath it.  Sheriff and Poudre fire authority that morning told residents of Rist canyon that over 100 structures were burned.  Not all houses were burned.    Again, wildfires don't burn everything.  They jump around capriciously.  Monday afternoon we heard on the news that the Feds are arriving with lots of Hot Shots firefighters and more airplane tankers.  We've been flying every tanker we had.  But they couldnt allow some pilots to take small craft up because the wind gusts would make it a death flight.  You crash a small plane into a Colorado wildfire, you're gone.  Private pilots were showing up wanting to help.  We love our mountains here in Colorado.  

It's now Monday night, and we've finally got some good news at last.  Wind has shifted direction and blowing smoke north and away from FC.  And With the help of those extra specialized firefighters, they've really gotten control of those latest three wildfires that leapt over the ridge this morning.  I could tell the difference as I drove along one of our thoroughfares.  The white smoke shows that it's no longer angrily burning beneath.  The bad news is what they expected to happen.  The fire is now nearly 40,000 acres but at least there is SOME containment.  At last.  They've said it will take several days, which is no surprise.  

Meanwhile, please send prayers, good thoughts, energy, whatever is appropriate for our canyons and our residents and all the firefighters.  

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