The rise and rise of the High Park Fire

High Park FIre flames approach Stove Prairie Ranch and the turnoff to Sky Corral.

Northern Larimer County dodged a bullet in May when the Hewlett Fire was contained in just over a week. The High Park Fire, first reported on June 9, has been a shotgun blast to the heart of the North Forty area, with no end in sight weeks after lightning struck a tree near Paradise Park.

Saturday, June 9
This was a weekend filled with long-planned events: The Virginia Dale 150th anniversary fundraiser. The Buckeye Quilt Show. The Taste of Fort Collins. The biggest event, however, was totally spontaneous.

At about 6 a.m., a Rist Canyon volunteer firefighter responding to a smoke report near Paradise Park finds a smoldering fire most likely started by a lightning strike overnight. By the time a full crew is on scene, the fire has spread through extremely dry vegetation and timber. It is only a matter of hours before it races down Rist Canyon at an estimated rate of 20 to 40 feet per minute.

By mid-morning, dozens of firefighters, several helicopters and two air tankers are battling the fire, defending structures along the south and west flanks of the fire.

As winds begin to pick up, Stove Prairie School becomes a staging area for fire equipment from Poudre Fire Authority, Poudre Canyon Fire Protection District and others.

Flame front from High Park Fire moves toward Stove Prairie Ranch.

At noon, the plume of smoke is towering above the foothills and fills the western horizon all afternoon.

As the wildfire crosses Stove Prairie Road just south of Stove Prairie School at about 2 p.m., Larimer County Sheriff’s deputies race the flames to evacuate residents along the winding roads of Stratton Park and the numerous driveways along County Road 41.

The fire knocks out power lines to the Buckhorn Mountain communications relay. Radio station KUNC goes off the air, and backup generators begin powering all emergency communications.
Although the flames never threaten Stove Prairie School, which is in a relatively open, flat area, the massed fire engines and other equipment give rise to the notion of a heroic stand to save the community landmark. One longtime RCVFD firefighter describes the defense of the school as “actually, pretty boring.”

But there’s plenty of excitement elsewhere.

Rist Canyon firefighters turn their attention to getting their neighbors out of harm’s way ahead of the fire. Eventually Chief Bob Gann has a chance to evacuate his own horses, but by that time he is literally driving through flames. Those angry flames are visible in the night sky all around Northern Colorado, reflected on billowing clouds of smoke.

Sunday, June 10
Evacuation orders are issued and roads closed throughout the day. As was the case with the Hewlett Fire, few people actually take shelter at the evacuation center at Cache La Poudre Middle School, but they gather to hear what news is available. The Red Cross and Salvation Army are set up to provide food and other assistance to evacuees. The media also arrives, but is officially barred from the citizens’ briefing. A few TV cameras make it in, but this will be the last time.

By the end of the day, the fire has burned through Rist Canyon; Soldier Canyon is burning, and Davis Ranch, Stratton Park and Whale Rock are inaccessible because of heat and flames. Most of the homes later confirmed destroyed are lost in this initial fire storm. But unburned islands remain, thanks in large part to structure protection efforts. While that sounds like good news, the islands become potential fuel sources should the fire blow back on itself. Experts refer to this as “a dirty fire.”

Because radio and cell signals are so spotty, crews rely on “human repeaters” to communicate over ridges and down valleys. Because smoke is so thick in LaPorte, the evacuation center is moved to The Ranch in Loveland.

One resident, Linda Steadman, remains unaccounted for.

Westminster firefighters observe the High Park Fire as it burns along the north edge of Poudre Canyon.

Monday, June 11
The High Park Fire is upgraded to Type I and management is turned over to the federal team. Aircraft and hot shot teams and other resources are ordered immediately, as the 37,000-acre fire remains totally uncontained.

Rist Canyon firefighters shift their focus to structure protection, digging fire breaks and removing fuel from around homes. Five members of the department know they have already lost their homes, and two others know their homes are damaged, but they stay professional and focused on the job. Some RCVFD members catch a few hours’ sleep in their own beds while others stand watch for advancing flames.

Those flames are advancing rapidly to the east and the south. Eighteen structures are confirmed burned, and Sheriff Justin Smith announces to the press that more than 100 have been lost, but it is unclear how many are homes.

Sheriff’s officers confirm that the remains of rancher Linda Steadman have been found in the ashes of her cabin on Old Flowers Road.

Tuesday, June 12
Recreation areas, including Horsetooth Reservoir and Open Space, are closed.

As more evacuations are ordered, some are lifted. The Larimer County Humane Society has taken in more than 250 domestic animals from evacuees, making arrangements for their care with local veterinary clinics and kennels. Officials ask the public to stop donating pet food because they have run out of room to store it; financial donations are more desperately needed.
At Glacier View Meadows, residents watching the northwest corner of the fire across the canyon express dismay that no airborne firefighting efforts are being made to stop the fire’s progression toward the subdivision.

The fire is 10 percent contained at the end of the day, and continues to grow.

Wednesday, June 13
A thousand firefighters and 22 aircraft are now battling the blaze. The majority of the east side of the fire, closest to Fort Collins, is contained.

Fifty National Guardsmen are assigned to the High Park Fire, and are immediately deployed to roadblocks to control access to the fire area. The number of “looky-loos” parking along roadways, and residents wanting to see if their homes are still there, is becoming a major impediment to firefighters. Residents who are allowed to return are issued credentials at The Ranch, and media access is strictly controlled.

Many evacuees stay with friends and family. Peter and Diana Pronko of Wellington are bringing their daughter and her dogs and cats back to her home on McMurray Ranch Road when the evacuation is lifted after three days.

Heavy winds fan 400-foot flames on the east slope of East White Pine
Mountain on the western edge of the High Park Fire on June 17. The fire is still burning as of June 26 and has consumed over 87,000 acres and over 250 homes, making it Colorado’s second most destructive wildfire on record.

Thursday, June 14
The 9th-12th filings of Glacier View are evacuated, after a spot fire jumps the Poudre River at Stevens Gulch. The residents’ meeting set for this evening is cancelled. A total of 48 homeowners are informed their homes in Stratton Park and Poudre Park have been destroyed.

The Humane Society takes over responsibility for bringing large animals left behind by evacuees, to further reduce the number of people in the burn area. Fire managers report that, contrary to rumors, there have been no confirmed incidents of looting.

Gov. John Hickenlooper bans all open fires and private use of fireworks throughout the state.

Friday, June 15
The number of homes confirmed lost is now 112. Containment is 20 percent. While fire crews and aircraft pour into the area from all over the nation, the needs of survivors are being addressed locally. Larimer County opens a Disaster Recovery Center on the Colorado State University campus, a one-stop-shop for information about what to do next.

The evacuation center reopens at Cache La Poudre Middle School, in addition to The Ranch, and school staff throws a community picnic.

Saturday, June 16
Homes lost now number 181. Containment reaches 45 percent, at a cost of nearly $11 million. Red flag warnings — predicted high winds and hot temperatures — are issued for this weekend.
Gov. Hickenlooper and federal officials arrive in Fort Collins for a briefing on the fire. He poses for photos with firefighters, including Michael Maher of Denver. Maher is arrested later at the Long Branch bar in LaPorte and charged with impersonating a firefighter, obstructing a peace officer, theft and attempting to influence a public servant.

High winds pushed immense flames and heavy smoke up a gulch on the south side of Poudre Canyon on June 17. This was across from Red Mountain and about a mile southeast of Glacier View Meadows. Twenty-five-foot trees on the southern edge of Green Mountain, just below the 12th filing of Glacier View Meadows, are visible at the bottom of the frame and give scale to the enormous firestorm across the canyon from the subdivision.

Sunday, June 17
The statewide fire ban puts a crimp on Father’s Day barbecues. High winds ground the helicopters that have been dropping water on the fire.

Monday, June 18
Winds die down unexpectedly, so the day ends with 50 percent containment.

Tuesday, June 19
A total of 189 homes have been lost to the High Park Fire.

With continuing uncertainty over status of homes, and areas being given an all-clear only to be re-evacuated, the community is starting to feel “fire fatigue.” But expressions of thanks to the firefighters spring up on homemade signs and business marquees all over town, especially along Overland Trail, where fire equipment passes every day to and from the command center on west LaPorte Avenue. Crews call it “the gauntlet” of gratitude.

Fundraising events also break out all over, from lemonade stands to concerts to restaurants donating profits to the Red Cross, the Humane Society, Rist Canyon VFD and the NoCo Rebuilding Network, which helped after the Crystal Fire with sustainable reconstruction. The Restore Bellvue Working Group begins signing up volunteer craftsmen to be ready to rebuild that area when the smoke clears.

The Larimer County Commissioners strengthen and extend the existing fire ban to include charcoal grills and private use of fireworks anywhere in the unincorporated areas of the county. Wellington has already imposed its own tough bans.

Wednesday, June 20
Good weather helps crews reach 55 percent containment of the fire, although it continues to grow to the west. About 700 firefighters are living in four spike camps around the western edges of the fire.

Patrick Kind, former principal at the Poudre School District’s three mountain schools — including Stove Prairie School, which is still not threatened — becomes Community Liaison for families affected by the fire. He intends not only to meet the basic needs of school families, but to organize activities that can give them a break from the fire for at least a little while.

Thursday, June 21
Another day of cool, calm weather allows containment to reach 60 percent. Larimer County and Adventist Community Services open a Donation Collections Center at the Foothills Mall to receive all the items the community wants to share with fire evacuees. Two previously unidentified homes are added to the lost list, bring the total to 191.

At a press conference with chiefs of the responding fire departments, Greg Niswender of Glacier View Fire Department says his department has been getting ready for the High Park Fire since the Hewlett Fire in May. They’ll be in the bull’s-eye in about 24 hours.

Smoke from the High Park Fire billows behind a home east of Glacier View Meadows near CR 74E on June 22.

Friday, June 22
After two days of progress, the red flag warning goes back up, and fire commanders prepare for the worst. It comes just after noon, when the fire jumps to the north side of Poudre Canyon at The Narrows, near Sheep Mountain, and makes a run to the north, toward the southeast corner of Glacier View.

The evacuation orders go out first to the Hewlett Gulch Road area – again. Then come the phone calls people in the first eight filings of Glacier View have been dreading since they were put on pre-evacuation notice on June 12. Deputies also go to residences known to be off the grid along Deer Meadow Way as flames race to within a quarter-mile of the long and winding road.
Even though residents had plenty of time to prepare, the actual evacuation of Glacier View is chaotic. Residents who had gone to work that day are trying to get up Red Feather Lake Road to retrieve their stuff while others are coming down.

Stove Prairie School is still not threatened, but the Western Ridge Restaurant and Resort on Red Feather Lakes Road isn’t open, either. The restaurant lost power the first day of the fire, and owner Cheryl Franz gave away perishables to emergency personnel before hauling the rest out to storage. She is stopped at The Forks with a trailer full of items intended for her Saturday re-opening.

Gov. Hickenlooper signs an executive order authorizing an additional $5 million to fight the High Park fire as well as $200,000 for the Stuart Hole Fire that was contained on June 7. The High Park Fire also qualifies for 75 percent federal reimbursement for firefighting costs, which now top $25.5 million.

The Mishawaka Amphitheatre is still standing on the north side of the Poudre River, but cancels all concerts through the end of June.

Saturday, June 23
The fire on the north side of the Poudre Canyon grows to 10,000 acres, making the High Park Fire the second largest wildlife in Colorado history. The total number of homes confirmed lost — not counting homes burned in Glacier View — makes it the most destructive.

Bonner Peaks subdivision, evacuated briefly during the Hewlett Fire, is put on pre-evacuation notice.

The sort-of good news is that the fire is reaching into the Hewlett burn area, where there is little fuel left. And a planned burnout to containment lines south of Poudre Canyon near Mount McConnel has been achieved naturally, but most of the progress made since last Saturday has been lost. The High Park Fire is now only 45 percent contained.

High Park fire
Western Ridge Restaurant and Resort owner Cheryl Franz embraces evacuee and Hewlett Gulch Road resident Rachael Beckett next to CR 74E on June 22 after high winds blew flames through Glacier View Meadows and on east to within sight of Deer Meadow.

Sunday, June 24
Sunday dawns with calm winds holding a layer of smoky haze on the ground in LaPorte. The sound of helicopters off to drop water from Horsetooth on the fire fills the air. At last report, the High Park Fire had consumed an area the size of Kansas City, Kan., is less than half surrounded by a fire line, and the red flag warning remains in place.

Elsewhere in the state, seven other fires rage. The town of Manitou Springs has been evacuated ahead of the Waldo Canyon Fire. Crews are mopping up the Woodlands Heights Fire near Rocky Mountain National Park after just 24 hours, but 22 structures burned. The Springer Fire near Eleven Mile Reservoir has been contained but, like the Hewlett Fire, remains active.

Residents of the 9th and 12th filings of Glacier View Meadows emerge from a citizen briefing at The Ranch with bad news: 57 homes have burned. The total acres burned in High Park Fire has reached 83,000 and the cost is estimated at $29.6 million.

With conditions just as dry as in 2002 but a month earlier in the season, as Chief Gann says, this will be going on all summer.