Just when I thought it was safe to go for a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park—when most of the tourists had cleared out, when the haze from all the fires had disappeared, and when the weather finally turned cool enough so hiking was enjoyable—I end up being witness to a late season forest fire.
I was hiking up Deer Mountain on Tuesday, which provides glorious views of the park from all directions. To the south is Longs Peak and the ridge of peaks with Moraine Park below it; to the west the high peaks were strangely snowless, looking a bit bare, and to the north and below was Horsehoe Valley surrounded by aspen forests. As I started my hike, it looked like wisps of smoke coming from above Moraine Park, where the Cub Lake and Fern Lake trails take off from. But I told myself it was a campfire.
But what seemed like only 10 or 15 minutes later, huge clouds were being created, ominously pink and yellow and greyish white, roiling upward in huge formations, propelled by high winds. Soon, Longs Peak had disappeared and then within a matter of a few minutes part of Moraine Park.
I had never been this close to a forest fire, probably five miles as the crow flies, and it’s a beautiful thing to see, if you don’t think about the acres of forest that are being consumed, the animals and humans having to flee this fast-moving fire, the possible danger if the winds shifted and the smoke started blowing toward me. I wasn’t the only one mesmerized; people stopped along the trail, sat down to watch, as if we were at a movie theater. Down below me, on Trail Ridge Road, cars had pulled over, with people focusing their cameras, on the smoke and fire rather than the elk herds.
Strangely, at the same time, a cold front was moving in from the east, so huge white clouds, a purer white than the dark clouds to the west, were moving in slowly, filling in the valleys below with feathery plumes (above). When I drove down to Horsehoe Park, maybe 500 feet lower than Deer Mountain, the temperature dropped by at least 15 degrees. On top, people were wearing shorts and T-shirts; down below, down parkas were necessary.
And yet the cold front and hot fire never met, so the fire continues to burn, as I write this, consuming at least 660 acres despite temperatures at night in the 20s and even a few inches of snow—an unnatural late season fire in a unnatural year.