Forest Fires and the Poudre Canyon

“Forest Service: fighting a forest fire,” Library of Congress

In Norman Fry’s autobiography Cache La Poudre: The river: as seen from 1889 (published in 1954), he recounted the “Forest Fire of 1893.” In June of that year, one of the “driest summers,” a fire began in the upper country between Bennett Creek and the Little South of the Poudre. Back then “there was no organized way of fighting fires, it just burned away. For days and weeks, all that was visible of the sun was the appearance of a big red ball through the smoke.”

The fire burned everything up to timber line and dropped into Mineral Springs Gulch (which feeds into what is now Rustic Road). It was getting closer to the river and the County sent six men up to fight the blaze, but the fire still raged and made it to the head of Sheep Gulch and timberline. Luckily the monsoon season began in July and extinguished the fire. They didn’t go to great lengths to discover the cause but suspected lightening. Fry recounts how the burned area “was a blackened waste with nothing but the trunks of the Pine and Spruce standing to show where once had been a magnificent Forest.” However, Fry remarked “Nature, however, is a wonderful re-builder.” “As always, the first growth to be noticed were the raspberries, which started the year after the fire.”

Department of Interior Artwork. “Fighting Forest Fire,” by Ernest Fiene. Library of Congress.

In 1910, the Big Blowup Fire occurred in northern Idaho and western Montana.  The fire burned over 3,000,000 acres of land. It killed 87 people (primarily firefighters) and destroyed numerous structures including entire towns. In the aftermath, the Forest Service was recognized for its firefighting efforts and their budget was nearly doubled. Early wildfire prevention and suppression strategies developed as a result of the fire. In Colorado the policy became “all fires out by10 am.”

Likely there were numerous small fires that subsequently occurred in our area, but those of note include the 1939 Panhandle Fire, northwest of Red Feather Lakes, which burned 1,060 acres; the 1944 Glendevey Fire that burned 900 acres; the 1952 Roosevelt Fire north of Red Feather Lakes that burned 2,000 acres; the 1958 Deadman Fire that burned 300 acres west of Red Feather Lakes; the 1971 Bull Mountain Fire that burned 3,100 acres in northwestern Larimer County; the 1978 Kilpecker Fire west of Red Feather Lakes that burned 1,112; and then in 2012 the High Park Fire that burned 87,284 acres west of Fort Collins, killed one person, and destroyed at least 248 homes. Many of us remember the High Park Fire, the smoke plumes, ashes and cinders falling around us and the firefighters from all over the country who came to combat that massive burn.  I can’t attest to the raspberries coming back, but I do know, as Norman Fry pointed out in 1893 “Nature, however, is a wonderful re-builder.”  As it will be again.  With time.