Thursday, December 6, 2012

History Repeating Itself

This story probably sounds familiar:

A wildfire begins in the backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park. Because it's a relatively small fire, low intensity, and doesn't threaten any structures, the Park Service allows it to slowly burn. Several weeks later high winds blow down off the mountains and whip the fire out of control. The fire spreads rapidly and threatens the homes and small businesses along the eastern boundary of the park, and the residents are forced to flee in order to protect themselves from the smoke and flames.

You might think I'm referring to the Fern Lake Fire, which is currently burning in the Moraine Park area of the park. However, I'm actually referring to the 1978 Ouzel Fire which burned more than a thousand acres in the Wild Basin area of the park.

Here's a quick overview of the fire from Rocky Mountain National Park: A History, by C. W. Buchholtz: 
On August 9, 1978, a bolt of lightning struck near Ouzel Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park and started a fire in a subalpine spruce-fir forest. In accord with a new philosophy that recognized the ecological significance of natural fires, Park rangers monitored the fire continuously as it carried out its "cleansing" role. For days the fire behaved as expected, spreading slowly and casting only an occasional puff of smoke into the sky. But then on August 23 and again on September 1, gusts of wind caused the fire to intensify and spread rapidly. As public pressure grew Park officials decided that the fire could remain wild no longer and assigned firefighter crews to control the blaze. With the help of snow and rain, containment seemed assured by September 11th.

However, on September 15 winds exceeding thirty miles per hour swept out of the west, whipped the fire back into life and pushed it eastward toward the Park boundary. Residents of nearby Allenspark were alarmed at the rapid progress of the fire. People living in a housing subdivision even closer to the Park boundary found themselves directly in the path of the fast-approaching fire. Nearly 350 people prepared to flee or fight for their homes. Facing this emergency, some 500 firefighters scrambled to prevent the "Ouzel Fire" from escaping the confines of Rocky Mountain National Park. After days of strenuous effort, the fire crews successfully controlled one of the wildest elements of nature and kept the Ouzel Fire within the Park.
The fire was finally brought under control by September 30th, and wasn’t fully extinguished until December 4th! In all, the Ouzel Fire burned more than a thousand acres, making it the largest fire in Rocky Mountain National Park history at that time.

The scars from the fire can still be seen along the trail to Bluebird Lake:

It's funny how history has a way of repeating itself, and that we as humans have a hard time learning from the lessons of the past.


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