Over Sunday and Monday, the Cameron Peak Fire tripled in size. The explosive growth over these two days was caused by a perfect combination of Red Flag conditions along with strong westerly winds. These winds blew the fire through heavy beetle-kill and timber causing exponential growth and spotting. Previous fire models had given this behavior and chances of the fire moving into our area a “2% probability”. At the same time, Poudre Canyon saw extensive fire activity on the south side of the canyon with severe spotting threatening structures. Fire managers tried to act but trigger point after trigger point was being clicked off on many fronts. Mid-day on Monday the fire entered our response area in the Upper Buckhorn. Honestly had the wind not shifted early due to the oncoming cold front fire would have continued farther down the Buckhorn. We got lucky.
Fire behavior on Monday was so extreme and the resulting smoke was so intense that all air resources were grounded. Our spotter planes were completely ineffective, leaving the fire managers blind to the location of the fire. Cpt Shellhammer used Larimer County Emergency Services (LCES) personnel to fan out to lookout locations around the fire. These ground observers reported actionable intelligence but because the fire was moving so fast they had to continually find other safe places to spot from. As a result, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith made the decision to do a full mandatory evacuation of the entire RCVFD response area.
So what was RCVFD’s role over the last few days?
Sunday through Monday morning. Larimer County Sheriff resources were fully committed to evacuations in other areas of extreme fire movement. A mandatory evacuation also means that emergency personnel try to knock on every door in the evacuation zone to be sure everyone gets the message. Imagine doing this throughout Crystal Lakes, Redfeather Lakes, Poudre Canyon, Stove Prairie, Monument Gulch, Crystal Mountain, Buckhorn Canyon, Paradise Park, Stratton Park, Davis Ranch, and Whale Rock all at the same time. Because of the vast territories that needed to be covered and our knowledge of our area, RCVFD was asked to assist. We sent all available personnel out to the communities in our area to get the word out to residents. Our responders logged over 100 hrs related to evacuations and visited over 300 homes.
Monday afternoon the sheriff’s resources were augmented with 50 officers from Boulder county. RCVFD was released from the evacuation team and we were able to assemble a number of strike teams (2-3 engines with ~6 people each) to provide structure protection in our response area. The fire could have entered our canyon from a number of locations. Fire was heading east and south from Poudre Canyon as well as climbing up from the Pingree Park area. Our Upper Buckhorn team found spot fires in advance of the flame front around mile marker 33-34 just below the winter gate near Pennock Pass. Several structures were threatened. We were able to extinguish the more problematic areas and protect the homes under threat. When enough had been done and the structures were secure for the night, we left the area at approximately 19:00.
Monday night through Tuesday, 5-14” of snow fell on the Cameron Peak Fire, stopping the fire’s growth temporarily. Many hotspots continued to throw up steam and smoke, but spread was next to impossible with all the snow. Cameron Peak Fire officials began attempting to do damage assessments in the harder-hit areas like Monument Gulch and Poudre City, but freezing temperatures and muddy road conditions prevented engines and firefighters from safely accessing the areas. According to LCSO, damage assessments are ongoing as of this Community Alert.
The weather also provided the opportunity to plan a major offensive strategy against the fire. Over 800 firefighters are currently assigned to the Cameron Peak Fire with more on the way, and we have been told that the Upper Buckhorn and Crystal Mountain areas are a primary focus. Expect to see large numbers of crews, engines, and aircraft entering the area over the next few days as the weather allows. RCVFD resources continue to help: focusing on structure protection, clearing roads, and doing initial attack on any new starts caused by thrown embers. The sheriff has made the decision to keep the Buckhorn evacuations in place so that this army of firefighters can proceed unhindered and quickly. Additionally as the weather warms and the snow melts, fire activity is likely to pick up. Although crews are taking advantage of the offensive opportunity, we all remain on high alert.
Not knowing what is going on can be extremely frustrating, and all we can offer is commiseration. We are looking at the same public sources of information that are available to you, and we often struggle to answer your questions with any authority. In rare cases like last night, Cpt Shellhammer was able to sit down with us and give us some insider information. We always try to make sure information gets to you quickly but please also consider we are out in the field trying to improve conditions and protecting homes ... as well as holding down our day jobs.
If you are left with more questions, it is best to direct them to the Rocky Mountain Black Team. There are a lot of ways to get the answers you need. All of the sources below are linked from our website, but here is a quick run-down:
- NOCO Alerts has the latest evacuation information including a map showing the mandatory and voluntary zones. This is also where you can sign up to be notified when evacuation status changes for your area. In most cases the phone calls and text messages from this service will be your first notification – use it!
- The Cameron Peak Fire Information page contains a wealth of information including current perimeter maps, daily updates on the suppression efforts, and a Contact Us tab where they give email addresses and phone numbers that you can use to contact the Rocky Mountain Black Team directly with questions and concerns.
- If you prefer Facebook, the Cameron Peak Fire Facebook page has a lot of activity including daily briefings and informative video. Contact information is on this page for questions and concerns, and you can send them a direct message in Facebook as well.
- The Larimer County Cameron Peak Fire page has information on how to get emergency alerts on your phone, shelter assistance for you and your large and small animals, and evacuation information including when and where to get credentials so you can easily access your property once residents are allowed back into the evacuation zones.
Jeff Elsner, Chief
Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department