The Estes Valley, including the Town of Estes Park and surrounding unincorporated Larimer County, is no stranger to wildfire. Work has been ongoing by our neighbors and partners to address this risk, with benefits to all of us who call the Estes Valley home. Since 2010, this area has been protected by the Estes Valley Fire Protection District (EVFPD), a predominately volunteer agency supported by 8 full time employees. The region has been served by volunteer firefighters since 1907, before the creation of the National Park or Town.
In 2002, the Big Elk Fire burned to our southeast consuming 4,800 acres and cost the lives of three fire aviator pilots – Rick Schwartz, Milt Stollak, and Gordon Knight. In 2012, while northern Larimer County faced the 88,000 acre High Park Fire, Estes experienced both the Woodland Heights Fire that burned 27 homes, and just to our east was the Fern Lake Fire that burned 3,500 acres late in the year. In 2020, the two largest fires in Colorado history came to our doorstep – the 208,000 acre Cameron Peak Fire and 194,000 acre East Troublesome Fire – the combination of which prompted our first evacuation of the entire Estes Valley. As recently as 2021, the Kruger Mountain Fire burned 147 acres adjacent to Little Valley and cost the life of another fire aviator – Mark Thor Olson.
In 2022, EVFPD completed an update to our Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). This document includes guidance for individuals to take on their properties, for neighborhoods to take collectively, and to prioritize large-scale work that can benefit the entire community. Currently, EVFPD is pursuing grants to be able to build capacity and complete some of those priorities identified in the CWPP. Fortunately, we do have a number of neighboring agencies and organizations within our boundaries who have taken initiative to complete much needed mitigation work. We wanted to share some of this work to help all appreciate what is being done and the range of options available to help protect our forests and our community.
For many years, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) has conducted work within their boundaries. The most significant efforts have been along the Bear Lake Corridor, Deer Mountain, and most recently south of Lily Lake. You have likely noticed this as multiple piles of green material is made as dead and downed fuels are gathered, and when conditions are safe in the winter, these piles are burned. This removal of fuels accomplishes multiple goals, including increasing forest health by opening up the forest floor, and reduction of available fuels to carry a fire through the area. Work within RMNP has benefited our community multiple times, especially during Fern Lake (2012) and East Troublesome (2020).
The Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forests have also been active managing the forest to our north, east, and south. Most recently this has included work within their boundaries above Little Valley, off Highway 36 near Lions Gulch, on Pole Hill, and in areas to our north along the Big Thompson Canyon and Storm Mountain. Like the projects in RMNP, these treatments help to improve forest health and reduce risk of wildland fire spread through high-risk areas.
Within the Estes Valley, there are examples of multiple projects undertaken to address forest health, wildfire risk, and watershed protection. The Estes Valley Watershed Coalition has been the lead on projects around Mary’s Lake, as wildfire can result in significant negative impacts to water quality, their treatments addressed multiple risks. The Larimer Conservation District (LCD) has conducted past work above Cheley Camps off Fish Creek Road as well as supported work within MacGregor Ranch. Both projects had wildfire risk reduction goals, striving to not just thin fuels but to reintroduce more fire-resistant species such as aspens in place of pines. Depending on where you live in the valley, you may not have realized this work was occurring until it was completed, but it is always going on.
An upcoming project many will see will be LCD’s work with MacGregor Ranch on both sides of Devil’s Gulch Road north of Town. This work strives to return the forest to early 1900 densities to increase forest health and reduce wildland fire spread risk and is the next phase of a more than 5-year project completed by MacGregor Ranch. As any work to reduce wildland fuels upwind of our community benefits the greater good, EVFPD appreciates partners such as Cheley and MacGregor Ranch taking the initiative to treat their properties.
As EVFPD continues our work to support our entire community and address the significant risk that wildfire poses, we hope to support and direct more fuels mitigation work across the valley. It’s helpful to understand the many tools available for projects, and the multiple benefits our community sees when these projects are completed. We hope you’ll take time to learn more about our Community Wildfire Protection Plan at www.estesvalleyfire.org/wildfire and the steps you can take as a resident or guest of this valley to protect yourself from wildfire.
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