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Fern Lake Fire In RMNP Still Slumbers

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. (AP) — After seven months, and many feet of snow in Rocky Mountain National Park, wildland firefighters still cannot say the Fern Lake fire is out.

Pungent odors of unseen embers were still in the air during a May 13 hike into Fern Lake's heart, underlining their hesitancy.

"It's the question we get all the time," said Mike Lewelling, RMNP's fire management officer. "Is it out? Technically it's not out. Fires have held over in these kinds of fuels, if there is enough heavy dead-and-down."

Heavy dead-and-down is firefighter-speak for the conditions that made the 5-square-mile Fern Lake fire the most challenging fire to suppress and contain that any park employee can remember.

The terms describe the impenetrable mass of timber that lies like huge pick-up sticks across the forest floor in so many areas of the park. Tangled with snags, it clogs canyons, ravines and steep hillsides, sometimes presenting barriers almost insurmountable to firefighters.

And, it burns. Hot and fast.

On a tour, Lewelling joined other firefighters, a fire ecologist and the park's natural resource manager in telling the Fern Lake story.

For the first seven weeks of the burn, fire managers thought they were gaining an upper hand.

Fern Lake Fire Map
(credit: CBS)

But late on Nov. 30, winds gusting to more than 70 miles per hour pushed the fire eastward from the canyons where it had burned. It shrieked down the valley where the headwaters of the Big Thompson River flow, bringing the flames along.

In the early hours of Dec. 1 fire raced across Moraine Park, torching grasses and trees near the meadow edges.

One structure, a private home off Bear Lake Road on the southwest edge of Moraine Park, succumbed to the flames.

"Think of this," said Mark Mendonca, a captain in the Alpine Hotshot crew as he stood near the wreckage of the burned home. "A fire burning at 9,000 feet. In December. With snow on the ground."

The fire ran 2 1/2 miles in half an hour that night, doubling its size.

More than 1,500 evacuation notices were flashed through the Estes Valley in the cold predawn hours of Dec. 1.

Fire managers worried about the Fern Lake blaze crossing Bear Lake Road, and whipping eastward toward Estes Park in front of the shrieking wind.

"My biggest concern was the fire jumping the road, and running into town," Lewelling said. "If that had happened, well ... it would have been tragic."

Firefighters also were intent on stopping a run to the south, where 2,000 people were housed at the YMCA center in the park.

They were successful.

In coming weeks, the park crews will use infrared aerial surveys to identify possible hot spots. They hope that none show up. If they do, they'll be on them.

Sometime this summer, someone will say the Fern Lake fire is out.

- By TOM HACKER,Loveland Reporter-Herald

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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