Fighting fire in the Colorado winter

Minden's Tanker 48 dropping on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer
Tanker 48 dropping on the Fern Lake Fire in Colorado, Dec. 4, 2012. Photo by Paul Filmer

The Fern Lake Fire created problems for firefighters in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park from the minute it started on October 9, 2012. At first it was the steep, inaccessible terrain, but very soon the 9,000-foot altitude and especially the low temperatures became another foe to deal with as the fire kept burning into November and December. The order for the Type 1 incident management team that was placed December 1 has to be one of the latest orders for a Type 1 team ever put into the system, although there have been some December orders a few times in southern California during Santa Ana wind conditions.

Today a guest author who was there will tell us what it was like at that winter fire in Colorado. Rae Brooks worked as a public information officer with the Type 1 team in December at the Fern Lake Fire. Her background is in journalism.


ESTES PARK, Colo. — Sweltering heat and long summer days are the usual operating theater for wildland firefighters. At the Fern Lake Fire in northern Colorado, firefighters entered a new world of winter firefighting, where pumps freeze, dip lakes ice over, darkness descends early, and fire prediction models say nothing should be burning at that time of year anyway.

Most firefighters had long ago packed away their gear and turned their attention to skiing or Christmas shopping, when the call came in early December for hundreds to come to Estes Park to help battle a persistent blaze in Rocky Mountain National Park.

“This is definitely a first for me, much less at 9,000 feet,” said veteran firefighter Kevin La Bella of Palmer Lake, Colo., a safety officer on the fire. “I’ve lived on the Front Range for 30 years and I’ve never heard of a major fire here in December.”

Fern Lake fire
Early in the Fern Lake fire, Forest Canyon blow up. NPS Photo

The New York Times called the nearly 3,500-acre blaze “perhaps the most unusual sign of the nagging drought” currently plaguing the United States. The Fern Lake Fire, The Times reported, is burning “on peaks that should be covered in snow right now.”

Although winter fires remain atypical, it is clear that fire seasons in the United States are beginning earlier, ending later and burning more acres annually. Six of the most destructive fire seasons have occurred in the past nine years. More than 9.3 million acres burned in 2012, the third highest since record-keeping began more than half a century ago.

The disconnect for many firefighters began while driving to Estes Park, listening to Christmas carols on the radio. Strains of “White Christmas” and other holiday standards also wafted around the incident command post, which, in order to escape the cold, was located in a hotel convention center. More typically, schoolyards, agricultural fairgrounds, or yurts hastily assembled in cow pastures serve as fire headquarters.

After 70 mile-per-hour winds caused the fire to double in size on Dec. 1, forcing the evacuation of more than 600 homes, a national Type 1 incident management team was deployed to handle the fire. Type 1 teams manage the nation’s most complex emergencies.

The first challenge was rounding up enough firefighters, aircraft and other resources. The park’s own hotshot crew had been disbanded for the winter just two days before the fire started on Oct. 9. “We tapped out available resources,” said Incident Commander Paul Broyles. “We had a hard time finding helicopters.”

When Information Officer Tom Lavagnino got the call in Medford, Ore., he had some questions for the dispatcher. “Is this a flood?” he asked. “Is this an oil spill? What I am assigned to?”

Although firefighters typically pitch tents outside at fire headquarters, at Fern Lake they were billeted in hotels. With everyone sleeping under warm roofs, the medical unit treated fewer colds and less flu. Team meteorologist Lisa Kriederman was thankful she didn’t have to gauge if snowfall might collapse tents.

For meals, firefighters normally collect plates outside catering trailers, then eat in open-air tents. At Fern Lake, they sat indoors in an exhibit hall at the county fairgrounds, warmed by terrace heaters. Propane heaters and heat tape on pipes kept the water flowing at portable washstands where firefighters clean up before eating.

Shorter winter daylight hours required firefighters to squeeze their work into a tighter window. On the dark drive back to Estes Park in the early evening, they were greeted by an impressive display of light-adorned Christmas trees along East Elkhorn Avenue.

The mandatory protective clothing worn by every wildland firefighter proved ill-fitted for cold weather. After sweltering through hot summers in their Nomex fire-resistant pants and shirts, many noticed how porous the clothing felt in winter.

“Nomex is inherently not a wind-resistant material,” said Rob Bozeman, an engine boss for Boulder Mountain Fire in Boulder, Colo.

Most firefighters wore their Nomex shirts over fleece or down jackets. That posed its own problems. The winter gear wasn’t fire-resistant and the extra layers restricted mobility. And when they started working, firefighters could quickly overheat.

Footing was also an issue. “Once it gets to freezing, the ground gets treacherous,” Bozeman said. “You’re counting on your foot to bite slightly into the ground, but it just slides off.”

Bozeman also worried about his engine pumps, which are outside the engine compartment. Some structure engines have special heaters for their pumps. “On mine,” he said, “everything hangs out the back exposed to the elements, with no way to heat them up at all.”

Cold weather also runs down radio batteries faster, freezes lakes that helicopter pilots would normally use to fill water buckets and thickens fire retardant, making it flow more slowly through pumps and hoses. All field water pumps had to be drained nightly or injected with eco-friendly anti-freeze.

Frozen helicopter dip site, Fern Lake Fire
Frozen helicopter dip site at the Fern Lake Fire. NPS photo.

Aircraft mechanics raided Home Depot in order to rig up MacGyver-like heaters to keep engines warm and water tanks from freezing. Firefighters broke ice on the Big Thompson River to allow the Skycrane helicopter to dip.

Team meteorologist Kriederman opted not to install a weather station west of the fire; heavy snowfall might have made it difficult and dangerous to retrieve later. Firefighters helped her create more accurate forecasts by supplying their weather observations from the field.

Instead of asking how hot it was going to be, as they do in summer, firefighters asked how cold it would get. Kriederman’s top concern switched from fire activity to firefighter well-being. Would it snow? When? How much? Would the ground get cold enough for snow to stick, making roads treacherous and perhaps requiring firefighters to retreat from the fireline?

For fire behavior analyst Rod Moraga, Fern Lake was a bit of a headscratcher. Models that rely on statistical data are central to predicting how fires will behave, but very little data exists for winter fires in the Rocky Mountains.

“A lot of the models say nothing should be burning right now,” Moraga said.

Models are meant to be tweaked with additional data and observations, he said. “Each day that I’m on the fire and observe it, the better my predictions are the next day.”

No vendor ever appeared in Estes Park to flog the usual fire T-shirt, which Moraga viewed as a lost opportunity. His Fern Lake T-shirts would have depicted Santa’s elves digging fireline with shovels and Pulaskis, or maybe Santa and his reindeer dispersing slurry as his sled soared across a flaming landscape.

Although Santa has yet to be featured on a fire T-shirt, he could conceivably make an appearance in the years ahead, as wildland firefighting gradually shifts from a seasonal pursuit to a near year-round occupation.


The last time the Fern Lake Fire was updated on InciWeb January 3, 2013 the fire was 88 percent contained and had burned 3,498 acres. The estimated containment date is May 31, 2013.

More information about the Fern Lake fire on Wildfire Today.

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4 thoughts on “Fighting fire in the Colorado winter”

  1. Excellent article by Rae Brooks. It brought back memories of the 1978 Ouzel Fire that burned in Rocky Mountain National Park in mid-September. Crews had to cope with frozen hoses and snow-flattened tents. No doubt that December conditions increased the difficulty level significantly.

    1. SUPER article, Rae. The journalism background is apparent, and your writing is unusually excellent. You could teach workshops for other fire info officers!

      High fives and then some.


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