Fern Lake Fire: An unprecedented 7-month winter blaze

8:01 PM, May 13, 2013   |    comments
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KUSA - On Monday, officials at Rocky Mountain National Park gave 9News a look at what damage the Fern Lake Fire caused and explained that the fire might not yet be out.

The fire started in October from an illegal campfire in an area of RMNP called Forest Canyon. The terrain is rugged and has not burned in at least 800 years.

The terrain is steep and littered with down trees, and because fires are a necessary part of forest ecology, officials weren't able to put the fire out right away. It persisted.

"Thanksgiving, I got a call at about 9:30 in the morning, and when I went to look at the fire, the fire was burning under a foot of snow," said Mike Lewelling, Fire Management Officer with Rocky Mountain National Park.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 1, heavy wind whipped the stubborn fire into a frenzy. It moved more than three miles east in roughly 35 minutes.

"It was brutal. It was gusts of up to 75 miles per hour," said Mark Mendonca, captain with Alpine Hotshots, who fought the fire that morning as it threatened homes in the Estes Park area.

One cabin was destroyed and 1500 evacuation calls went out to the community. The flames came within half-mile from Bear Lake Road.

"The significance of the fire crossing Bear Lake Road is that several communities, a lot of private residences are just on the other side of the road," Lewelling said.

The Alpine Hotshots helped fight the fire that night, though they're used to firefighting around the country.

"This is in our backyard, absolutely. I live less than a mile from where the fire was that night, and my family got evacuated," Mendonca said.

The Fern Lake Fire burned around 3,500 acres and could still be smoldering in some remote pockets. Officials won't know for sure that it's out until more snow melts and they can conduct an infrared flight to check for active burning.

Research says that large and severe fires like this one will become more frequent and expensive.

Officials at Rocky Mountain National Park say they fear budget cuts will affect their ability to mitigate the forest and help stop fires like the Fern Lake Fire.

They credit mitigation work for helping the fire stay west of Bear Lake Road.

(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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