High Park Fire 6th Anniversary

PHOTO BY WHEI HOWERTON. A lodgepole pine sprouts next to burned trees in the High Park Fire area.

By: The Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed

PHOTO BY POUDRE WATERSHED. Lodgepole seedlings along old flowers.

Six years ago on a hot and dry day in June, a lightning strike started the High Park Fire, an event that many Larimer County residents will never forget. The fire continued to grow over the course of three weeks, eventually becoming the third-largest fire in state history at 87,487 acres. The fast-moving fire forced residents to evacuate, eventually destroyed 259 homes and severely burned large swaths of the watershed. The cost of suppressing the fire was approximately $39 million and one person perished. The impacts of the fire continued to ripple downstream – post fire flooding and erosion interrupted our water supply and it cost millions to repair roads, burnt hillslopes, creeks and other infrastructure. Even to this day, we continue to work on post fire restoration in the burn scar.

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But the intervening six years have also brought much positive change and growth. One thing that the High Park Fire showed is how much stronger we all are when we work together to solve big problems.   

During the High Park Fire, residents of the Glacier View Meadows, Red Feather Lakes and Crystal Lakes communities all experienced the stress and fear of losing their homes and the fear of needing to be evacuated at a moment’s notice along with keeping their family members and pets safe. “Some of our neighbors lost their homes and irreplaceable family treasures and were left with a blackened landscape,” said Darlene Kilpatrick of North 40 Mountain Alliance. “Their loss rippled through the community and PTSD was common. The hardship of having to stay in a house that survived the fire but was surrounded by the devastation and seeing beloved neighbors’ homes gone contributed to this. It made us stronger and more connected as a community and we gained the hard-won awareness that fires will happen again.” The North 40 Mountain Alliance was born from High Park Fire, a nonprofit organization created to offer residents accurate and current incident information, a source for resources, a connected community to better handle disasters and increase resilience and to be better prepared for future wildfires (n40alliance.org).

PHOTO BY WHEI HOWERTON. A new carpet is growing on an old forest floor.

To begin to become better prepared for future fires, education over forest treatments as well as collaboration are key. One of the great things the North 40 Mountain Alliance is doing is talking about preparedness and resilience now, instead of while the disaster is occurring. If community members and organizations are able to come together to increase resilience and improve overall watershed health, we can work together to prevent incidents like the High Park Fire from happening in the Poudre Watershed.

PHOTO BY WHEI HOWERTON. New growth in some of the smallest places. The beauty of the High Park Fire is in the details.

One of the biggest lessons from The High Park Fire was that no one entity or individual has all the resources, authority, or knowledge to address big problems posed by a catastrophic wildfire. This spurred our local planning, research, restoration and government agencies to follow the same path of collaboration. Starting with post fire restoration collaboration (which eventually formed CPRW), the conversation has evolved to focus on how we can collectively use the power of collaboration to help us restore our forests and help ensure we have fewer negative outcomes to our watershed and our communities when another wildfire happens. Partners from the US Forest Service, CSU’s Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, Rocky Mountain Research Station, The Nature Conservancy and CPRW are working together to plan, implement, and communicate the actions we all need to take to live in a fire adapted ecosystem. Together we can work together across boundaries to ensure that future wildfires don’t have the adverse impact that the High Park Fire did. The success of this collaborative will rely on reaching out to local communities – so expect to hear more over the next year about opportunities to learn and give your thoughts on how we can work together to protect the amazing place that is the Poudre Watershed.

The Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed is a local non-profit whose mission is to improve and maintain the ecological health of the Poudre River watershed through community collaboration. For more information visit www.poudrewatershed.org or email jenk@poudrewatershed.org