Anatomy of a forest fire: A day-by-day look at the Hewlett Fire

The Hewlett Fire consumed more than 7,600 acres of forest north of the Poudre Canyon in 10 days. No structures were burned, no lives were lost, but how the blaze unfolded tells an important story of life in the canyon and what the driest summer since 2002 has in store for Northern Colorado.

The Hewlett Fire burns along the upper ridge Poudre Canyon as two rafters navigate the Cache la Pouder River

About 1 p.m., James J. Weber of Fort Collins is using an alcohol-fueled camp stove at his overnight campsite on Hewlett Gulch Trail in the Roosevelt National Forest, about 10 miles west of Ted’s Place at the junction of U.S. Highway 287 and Colorado Highway 14. The stove ignites surrounding dry brush and despite Weber’s efforts the fire soon gets out of control. Because there is no cell service in the area, he drives out of the canyon to report the fire, passing several homes and an outdoor payphone at the Columbine Lodge on the way.

Poudre Canyon Fire Protection District volunteers are the first on the scene.

“The fire was about a quarter-mile up the trail,” PCFPD Fire Chief Carl Solley recalls. “There was very little smoke at first, but between 1:30 and 1:40, it just blew to the top of the ridge.” He adds that his biggest concern is that the wind would shift from the southwest to the northwest and push the fire down into Poudre Park.

Solley almost immediately hands operations over to Larimer County Emergency Services, and concentrates his crew’s efforts on structure protection.
A plume of smoke is clearly visible from Fort Collins and south to Loveland, and continues rising all afternoon.

By 6 p.m., the fire is raging on 280 acres of mostly US Forest Service land, and 150 firefighters are on the scene. Jan Gueswel, president of the Lower Poudre Canyon Association, swings into action, organizing residents to put together a meal for the emergency crews, about 150 people.

“I told her my guys would be eating MREs that night, and she says, ‘Can we feed them?’” Solley says. “Within an hour, the residents had it all set up at the community hall to feed everyone, and they kept it open until 11 p.m.”

The canyon community is back on the chow line feeding breakfast to an additional 50 firefighters and even some reporters before 7 a.m. At 9 a.m., the Emergency Management Response Team reports that the fire has grown to more than 350 acres.

Solley attends the daily fire briefings and sends email updates to canyon residents each evening to keep them informed.

At their weekly meeting, the Larimer County Commissioners extend restrictions on open fires and use of fireworks in unincorporated parts of the county through June 15. However, under the restrictions, use of camp stoves like the one that started the Hewlett Fire is permitted.

No evacuations have been ordered, but residents within a quarter-mile of Highway 14 between mile markers 110 and 115 are warned to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

By the end of the day, the fire is sweeping eastward in rugged, steep terrain. Helicopters and planes are assisting, but the fire remains only 5 percent contained.

Several Hot Shot teams and personnel from fire districts throughout the state are on the fire lines. Gusty winds ground a heavy air tanker and two helicopters dropping retardant and water from Milton Seaman Reservoir for part of the day. All containment work is done by hand, because heavy equipment can’t negotiate the terrain or the bridges crossing to the north side of the river from Highway 14.

The wind, always the wild card in a wildfire, shifts and begins to blow the fire north. Although the official website,, reports that the fire is approaching “the southeast corner of Glacier View,” it is not the subdivision, but the edge of the Glacier View Fire Protection District. This is the first but not the last bit of miscommunication arising from a lack of familiarity with the geography and terminology in the canyon.

The Colorado Department of Public Health issues a wildfire smoke advisory through Friday and Poudre School District restricts all outdoor activities, including the 6th-grade track meet. Wellington Middle School moves its Thursday Relay for Life cancer-awareness walkathon inside.

Larimer County closes the Eagle’s Nest Open Space and the City of Fort Collins closes nearby Gateway Natural Area. Hewlett Gulch Trail and Greyrock Trail remain closed, because they are on fire. Total acres involved: 982.

Larimer County Sheriff's deputies block access to Bonner Peak Ranch.

Overnight infrared mapping shows the fire has grown to nearly 5,000 acres, still only 5 percent contained.

As a precaution, an evacuation is ordered for 65 homes in the Bonner Peak subdivision, from Obenchain Road north to Bonner Springs Ranch Road.

“It’s not one of those things you take lightly,” according to Ray Caraway, executive director of the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado, who lives on Obenchain Road about two miles from the river. “We looked to the west on Wednesday and saw (the fire) coming with nothing standing in its way.”

Caraway says he and his family started packing both vehicles on Wednesday, and had taken a load of irreplaceable items and their dog to a friend’s house before the evacuation was ordered about noon.

The eastern edge of the fire has reached the western shore of Seaman Reservoir, part of the drinking water supply for the city of Greeley. The intakes from the North Fork have been closed for several months for maintenance, but Water and Sewer Director Jon Monson says the city is monitoring the situation closely.

“We have multiple sources we can draw from, which helps protect the quality of the drinking water for our customers, but some mitigation may be required after the fire is out,” he says. “After the Picnic Rock fire in 2004, we conducted extensive restoration with the NRCS on the east side of the reservoir.”

The reservoir’s caretaker and his dogs are evacuated in an orderly fashion, but in Poudre Park it is a different story. Inciweb showed an evacuation ordered for homes within a quarter mile of Highway 14 between mile markers 107 and 110 – well west of Poudre Park, where the fire is threatening backyards.

Deputies on the scene eventually sort out the confusion, but not everyone is on the same page yet.

Tara Quick owns the Copper Tulip/Twisted Sisters in Wellington, but her home sits right next to the river at mile marker 112. She says she had both trucks packed with her belongings, cats and chickens as she watched the fire move first toward her and then away.

“I got complacent and unpacked the truck,” she recalls. “Then on Thursday I got a call from a neighbor that the police were knocking on doors saying to evacuate.”

So Quick loads up the truck again, only to have a deputy further down Highway 14 tell her there was no evacuation, but if she left the canyon she wouldn’t be allowed back in. The scenario of phone calls to dispatch saying go and deputies on scene saying don’t go repeats itself several times until Quick decides not to put the animals through anymore stress and leaves.

“We stayed in town Thursday night, but it was a difficult decision,” she says.

The Red Cross sets up an evacuation center at Cache la Poudre Middle School in LaPorte. Few people stay the night because they, like Caraway and Quick, have made other arrangements – and only two horses are brought to the livestock shelter at The Ranch in Loveland. About 100 community members attend a meeting to hear an update from incident commanders. They report 400 personnel are fighting the fire, but it remains 5 percent contained.

The evacuation of Bonner Springs is lifted later that night, but the 15 homes in Poudre Park are still empty and Highway 14 closed.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper declares a disaster emergency for the Hewlett Gulch Fire, which frees up about $3 million in state funds to pay for the firefighting effort.

That effort is beginning to gain the upper hand. With the help of 8,300 gallons of fire retardant dropped by the heavy air tanker, the fire is now reported at 7,673 acres and 45 percent contained.

The U.S. Attorney’s office announces that James Weber will be fined $300 plus a $25 processing fee for burning without a permit. The Forest Service can also pursue restitution.
Event organizers begin to make the hard choice to cancel weekend outdoor activities. The McKee Medical Foundation reluctantly calls off Saturday’s Community Classic Bike Tour because of smoke concerns. The Mishawaka Amphitheatre on the river is not threatened by the fire but is closed for safety.

The Poudre Park evacuation is lifted and Highway 14 reopens by 7 p.m.

About a half-inch of rain falls and by the end of the day, the Hewlett Fire is 85 percent contained. The cost of fighting it is estimated above $1.5 million. Fort Collins reopens the Gateway Natural Area.

At the Western Ridge Resort in Glacier View, Cheryl Franz and her daughter Kayla are “run off their feet” providing food and drink for Glacier View firefighters, reporters and various “lookie-lous” who want to see the fire for themselves.

“It’s just the two of us, I’m cooking and she’s waiting tables,” Franz says. “Next weekend was supposed to be our big weekend, so we’re understaffed. But we’re happy to help. The firefighters have done an awesome job.”

Firefighters continue to make progress against the Hewlett Fire, reporting 87 percent containment with no additional spread. Holding it here means of the total 7,685 acres burned, 6,118 were on federal land, 1,322 on private land, and 245 acres on state land.
The official description of the fuels involved is open timber, grass and shrubs, but residents report hearing the pop and watching the explosion of dead trees, especially stands of beetle-killed pines.

While Caraway says there was a fair amount of beetle-kill in the area, the situation is nowhere near that on the other side of Cameron Pass. But between this fire and Picnic Rock, a significant part of the national forest in the area has been burned, and little progress has been made to reclaim it.

“Maybe this can be a catalyst for looking at better stewardship of this important gateway area,” he says.

The Hewlett fire is expected to be totally contained by Tuesday evening, and the number of firefighters on scene is reduced to 200. The estimated cost has risen to $2.9 million.

The fire is 100 percent contained but still burning. Fire crews continue to identify and mop up hot spots, and, with the experience of the Lower North Fork Fire in Jefferson County last month in mind, keep an eye out for predicted high winds that could fan flames back to life.

The Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team begins planning how to deal with the devastation. Poudre Canyon Fire personnel are working to return the fire line to as natural a state as possible and constructing water bars across slopes to help minimize future erosion. In the last report from the incident commanders, the estimated cost of fighting the fire is $3.2 million.

Fire crews continue mop-up operations. The Mishawaka reopens so Memorial Day weekend concerts can go on. Eagle’s Nest Open Space also reopens. Raft trips will float down the river but the Forest Service warns holiday campers that smoke may still be visible and fire restrictions remain in place.

Hewlett Gulch Trail reopens but Greyrock Trail remains closed, and the effects of the fire on local tourism are expected to be felt for the rest of the drought-plagued summer. Smoke from the 122,000-acre Whitewater Baldy Complex fire in New Mexico can be smelled in Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park.

While most residents have come to accept the challenges of living in the scenic canyon, for some, they have become just too much.

Tara Quick and her mother Linda Slover have moved into town in Wellington to be closer to their store on Cleveland Avenue. They closed on their new house the day the Hewlett Fire broke out, but the evacuation sealed the deal.

“The river is so low, the forest is so dry and the canyon is so narrow, if the fire got into the canyon, it would just act like an airchute,” she says. “I was already scared of a fire starting this summer. The community has been talking about precautions you can take around your property, and I am completely grateful the firefighters did exactly what they needed to do – we were extremely blessed that we were only kissed by the fire. But it just doesn’t feel right living there anymore.”

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