For residents of the Hewlett Gulch subdivision, two major forest fires in a month have proven a bit stressful – living for weeks on adrenaline overload, with no end in sight. Their story may pale in comparison to those from Whale Rock, Stratton Park and Poudre Park. Yet, their homes and families have gone through a seemingly endless period of waiting out the fires. But then, their story isn’t over.
In June, the Hewlett Fire came within two miles on the south and one mile on the east, testing their nerves as flames came up the gulch on one end, and over the ridgetop above them. Close enough to watch the water falling from helicopter buckets. Yet, no evacuations or even pre-evacs were ordered. They soon began evacuating their horses and livestock to free them from the excessive smoke. At one point the smoke was so thick that the rabbits around my house panicked and began digging hidey-holes in the loose dirt of my flowerbeds. Do the rabbits know something I don’t? I asked myself.
In June, the High Park Fire was easily visible from the time it began on June 9. On Sunday night June 10, I stayed up past midnight watching the flames on Mt. Ethel. They were moving so fast to the east, I wondered if the fire would eat Bellvue for breakfast. It almost did.
These stoic and self-sufficient mountain people know that forest fires are a way of life for anyone who owns mountain property. They are mentally prepared for the event. It is the waiting, the uncertainty and the lack of specific information that can wear on them. When they heard a news report saying the fire had crossed the Poudre River, the unanswered question was “Where did it cross?”
The High Park Fire burned to the edge of the Poudre River near Poudre Park and Mishawaka. If it climbs the ridge on the north of the Poudre, Hewlett Gulch could be nothing but smoldering ash in less than two hours. A pre-evac notice was issued on Tuesday, but canceled Tuesday evening. Again, they started evacuating horses immediately. Many of them voluntarily evacuated.
When the fire crossed the river at Stevens Gulch, the concern became immediate. If the fire reached the plateau above the river, it could spread in several directions. With the landscape the driest in the 33 years that I’ve known it, the fire could run to Virginia Dale before a good defensive line could be built. The residents waited anxiously for two days while enormous air power fought to keep the fire within Stevens Gulch, as Glacier View evacuated. Despite all the resources, this “spot fire” as it was called grew from 200 acres to 400 acres.
Everyone was desperate for accurate information, frequently checking the sheriff’s website, the Forest Service Incident website and other sources. Some listened on the radio scanner apps on their smartphones. Those without television sets knew less than people in town.
Another threat presented itself on the night of Wednesday, June 13. Far to the west I could see flames that appeared to be up near Bald Mountain, and in another spot. Later I learned that some spot fires from lightning had been quickly extinguished by local firefighters, including sites on the Baldies, Mt. Margaret and one near the exclusive Fox Acres subdivision. That threat still remains; with these winds a second fire could quickly grow as large as High Park and compete for resources until everything was stretched so thin that nothing effective could be done.
The uncertainty wore at the Hewlett Gulch residents, constantly distracting their attention, keeping them is a sort of trance state. I found myself absently wandering to the top of my hill every 15 or 20 minutes to just see what there was to see. Too often everything was obscured by smoke and haze. I remained confident that my place would not burn, but found myself descending to the anger stage, saying, “OK, fire, either burn me out or leave me alone, but get this over with!” I remained confident in the firefighters and in my own personal fate.
The next day, June 17, the evacuation order came suddenly. With winds of 40 to 50 mph, the fire threatened the escape route leading out of Hewlett Gulch. Some residents, who had previously evacuated and then returned, quickly loaded their cars and trucks to head out again for a second time.
Would they return to find their homes torched? Or would everything be OK? It’s the waiting, the uncertainty that is almost as bad as the fire itself.
The all-clear came on Wednesday, June 20. Residents returned to unpack, relax and restore order. Then on Friday, June 22, a sudden evacuation was ordered when the fire exploded out of the canyon into Glacier View Meadows. Driving downhill I saw State Patrol cars setting up hasty roadblocks to stop traffic coming up Red Feather Lakes Road (CR 74E). That was my first clue to how serious it had become.
That night the fire ripped through Glacier View, destroying over 50 homes, heading for Hewlett Gulch and Deer Meadows, taking out a least four homes there.
When the residents return, will it be over? Will a new fire hit nearby? The residents will no doubt be working more to build defensible space, put records and photos in fireproof steel boxes and move everything possible to a more protected spot. After all, a fire in the mountains can happen at any time.