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Rocky Mountain National Park Hit By Wildfires On Both Sides Of Continental Divide

The East Troublesome Fire has hit Rocky Mountain National Park, including the confluence of Spruce and Forest canyons on the east side, prompting some evacuations around the town of Estes Park.
Courtesy Rocky Mountain National Park
The East Troublesome Fire has hit Rocky Mountain National Park, including the confluence of Spruce and Forest canyons on the east side, prompting some evacuations around the town of Estes Park.

Officials are tracking the explosive growth of the East Troublesome Fire on both sides of the Continental Divide and into the “crown jewel” of Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park. As flames burned on its eastern side, near the town of Estes Park, the western side was the main area of focus. The fire exploded to 188,000 acres as of Friday afternoon, making it the second-largest wildfire in state history.

It was unclear how deeply the blaze had infiltrated the park, including how many acres had burned and how many might burn.

“We do not have an accurate acreage at this point,” park spokesperson Kyle Patterson told KUNC Friday afternoon.

Firefighters cannot get to the heart of the blaze because it is burning in areas so filled with dead trees, on terrain so treacherous, that it would represent too high a risk, she added. Firefighters, however, are taking defensive positions. For example, they are prepared to protect the structures at the Holzwarth Historic Site on the park’s west side.

Asked if the fire had been attacked from the air, Patterson said there were no air operations today because of low visibility. Smoke and cloudy conditions have made aerial attacks difficult in recent days.

Hints of what damage the fire has already done to the park came in a series of photos released by park officials. One shows thick smoke filling the area around the Coyote Valley Trailhead, charred earth, a small fire still burning, and an orange glow looming ominously behind distant hills.

Weeks ago, another fire — the Cameron Peak Fire — breached the park’s boundaries from the north, in an area that’s less visited. About 7,000 acres in that area burned, but fire lines have recently worked to keep the Cameron Peak Fire at bay, Patterson said.

The park is one of the most visited places in Colorado, attracting millions of visitors a year who come for its majestic views and abundant wildlife.

The park remained closed on Friday as the East Troublesome Fire’s incident commander, Noel Livingston, indicated the fire was unpredictable. It grew as many as 67,000 acres in roughly a day and was expected to keep growing throughout the day given forecasts of high winds in places.

The fire, which erupted on Oct. 14, is estimated to be only 5% contained. Much of firefighters’ efforts, including fire lines, have been focused on the west side around the town of Grand Lake, which is perched just outside a park entrance.

“We’re not out of the woods in the Grand Lake area,” Livingston told reporters in a briefing on Friday.

Pre-evacuation notices remain in place for nearby Granby, Hot Sulphur Springs and Parshall in Grand County.

About 725 personnel are assigned to the fire, Livingston said, a significant increase, indicating the fire is the top priority in the region. The focus of efforts at the moment are on saving homes and, if need be, lives, he added.

On the eastern side of the fire, not far from a park entrance in Larimer County, sheriff’s deputies turned people away from Estes Park. Only residents who can prove they live in voluntary evacuation areas were allowed into town, but not to stay.

Because it spans the Continental Divide, the East Troublesome Fire received two designations Friday: the Grand Zone in the west and the Thompson Zone to the east.

In the Thompson Zone, the fire is active in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Spruce Creek drainage and its proximity to a nearby canyon is what prompted some evacuations in Estes Park, according to Patterson. Low temperatures, including some frost overnight, helped stall the fire, she said.

“It is still growing, but it is not advancing significantly to the east,” she said, adding hope that an anticipated snowstorm this weekend would further help control the blaze throughout the park.

The 48-mile Trail Ridge Road, which traverses the park starting in Estes Park and ending at Grand Lake, is closed. Fire caused trees to fall onto the road in places, making navigation impossible.

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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