ESTES PARK, Colo. — A wildfire that has been burning for nearly two months in Rocky Mountain National Park jumped its containment lines Friday night, and more than doubled in size, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people Saturday.
Traci Weaver, an information officer for the Fern Lake Fire said firefighters are still holding the fire lines within the Rocky Mountain National Park boundaries. A Type I Management Team arrived Sunday to take over management of fire operations.
According to an information officer, air support that was assigned to the fire could not be used Sunday due to strong, erratic winds.
The Fern Lake Fire stood at 1,515 acres Friday, and quickly grew to 3,584 acres by Saturday evening.
Fire activity increased Sunday afternoon on the south side of the fire, just west of Steep Mountain due to strong, gusty winds. Firefighters made significant progress on the north side of the fire from Bear Lake Road west, along Cub Lake Road to the Fern Lake Trailhead, according to the most recent fire update.
The fire, which started Oct. 9, was 40 percent contained before it blew up, but containment has been reduced to 20 percent, officials say.
The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag warning Sunday, which meant that there was an increased fire danger in the area, especially because winds were expected to pick up to around 60 mph Sunday afternoon.
Saturday night, pre-evacuation notices were sent to the Mary’s Lake Road area, including the area from Moraine Avenue and Rock Ridge Road South to Highway 7 and Fish Creek Road. The pre-evacuation notice includes both the east and west sides of Mary’s Lake Road.
The Highway 66 corridor and all adjacent streets remain in evacuation, while residents of High Drive Road and adjacent streets remain on a pre-evacuation notice.
Weaver said residents should be aware that pre-evacuation and evacuation notices could be expanded due to wind forecasts for this evening.
The evacuation center moved from Estes Park High School to the Mountain View Bible Fellowship at 5 p.m. on Sunday. The Mountain View Bible Fellowship is located at 1575 South Saint Vrain Avenue, at the corner of Peak View Drive.
There are now approximately 200 people fighting the fire, which increased from the 61 people who helped battle the blaze on Saturday. Additional hot shot crews with 20 members each, and two additional helicopters were ordered to fight the flames.
The stubborn fire forced 700 homes to evacuate in three areas: Highway 66 and all adjacent streets including the YMCA campground; High Drive and all adjacent streets, and Mary’s Lake Road up to Moraine Ave. to Mary’s Lake on the west side.
Later Saturday morning, residents in the last two areas were allowed to return home. They are still on pre-evacuation status, meaning they need to be ready to leave again at a moment’s notice.
“People came in, they were like we can see the glow on the ridge, we’re leaving, leave the food, leave your stuff, get in a car, go. That’s when it hit. It was close,” said Noelle Martinez, a Colorado State University student who was at a sign language retreat and had to evacuate from the YMCA campgrounds.
She and her friend, Kelsey Knippe, found refuge in their cars in the parking lot of the evacuation center located at Estes Park High School.
“I never experienced an evacuation before, so it was kind of scary,” Knippe said, who is also a CSU student.
More than 250 evacuees show up at the shelter, according to the Red Cross.
Evacuee Ann Vernon lives near the YMCA and can’t believe her life is in limbo because of a wildfire that won’t die.
“This has been going on two months, so it’s frustrating we didn’t get a handle on it before,” Vernon said.
But she and others understand why the fire has been so hard to contain.
“It is so dry now. It’s eerie. We haven’t had moisture in two months. It’s just the same as the summer and as dangerous,” she said.
“The drought is a big issue here, and we need moisture like crazy. We keep hoping for heavy snow, heavy rain, whatever,” said evacuee Earl Matson.
It was the high, gusty winds that helped the fire make a run overnight, jumping containment lines by about three miles in just 35 minutes.
Flames blackened meadows in Moraine Park, as firefighters worked to keep it from jumping the area.
“If it spots across the Bear Lake Road, we’d have more serious threats to private structures,” said Fern Lake Fire spokeswoman, Traci Weaver.
So far, one unoccupied cabin in the Kaley Cottage area has burned.
Firefighters are trying to maintain the continuing fire threat with more firefighter power, but it hasn’t been easy.
“You don’t see this type of fire, this late in the season. And a lot of our firefighting resources are seasonal. And the season is over. So trying to get resources rounded up has been challenging,” Weaver said.
Fire managers will hold a community and evacuee meeting at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Town Hall on MacGregor Avenue, in board room 170 . The meeting will be live streamed at www.estes.org/boardsandmeetings, and broadcast live on local cable channel 12.
Information on the Fern Lake Fire can be found at:
- Twitter: @inciweb
- Public information line: 970-577-3716 (Open 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. Dec. 2 and Dec. 3)
- Sign up for emergency notifications at www.leta911.org.