A mural painted by Wade Johnston and unveiled this summer pays tribute to the firefighters who saved the town of Estes Park from massive wildfires in October 2020. The mural, an initiative of the Estes Valley Resiliency Collaborative and commissioned by Visit Estes Park in partnership with the Estes Arts District, is located in an alleyway that connects Elkhorn Avenue with George Hicks Riverside Plaza. Photo courtesy John Berry/Visit Estes Park

Estes Park learns from brush with disaster

ESTES PARK — “We were told to expect to lose the YMCA of the Rockies, and if that happened, it was very likely that the fire would spread into Estes Park,” recalled Rachel Oppermann. “To hear that information, you know it was close.”

Surrounded on three sides by Rocky Mountain National Park, the sprawling 860-acre YMCA of the Rockies’ Estes Park Center includes more than 250 wooden cabins on heavily forested hillsides. If the massive East Troublesome Fire that roared across the Continental Divide and onto the park’s east side last October had crossed Bear Lake Road and the Big Thompson River and onto the tinder-dry YMCA property, little could have been done to keep it out of the evacuated town and its inns, restaurants and shops.

That horrible prospect was especially haunting for Oppermann, who is both marketing and communications manager for Visit Estes Park and a volunteer with the Allenspark Fire Protection District.

“That was a very overwhelming feeling,” said Oppermann, whose voice still quivers at the memory all these months later. “If the fire enters Estes Park, not only does it potentially ruin people’s homes but it potentially ruins people’s ability to support themselves in the community through the tourism businesses.”

When Estes Park’s population was emptied Oct. 22, the town was threatened both from the East Troublesome Fire a mile to its west and the Cameron Peak Fire two miles to its north in the Glen Haven area, said Chief David Wolf of the Estes Valley Fire Protection District. The town was saved, he said, not only by the work of fire crews but also a well-timed snowstorm.

To head off the Cameron Creek fire, he said, the village of Glen Haven had been evacuated on Oct. 14. “Our crews were engaged along Dunraven Glade Road and the Dunraven Glade Trail until the fire blew across that on Oct. 23, and our crews continued to work with air and ground resources to keep the fire where it was until the snow came.”

For the more threatening East Troublesome blaze to the west, firefighters were aided by fuel thinning that the National Park Service already had done along the Bear Lake Road corridor, Wolf said, and also because the fire’s interaction with Mount Wuh “created an eddy of wind that pulled it back and gave crews time to get into position to engage with it when it finally came down into Moraine Park” on Oct. 24-25. About 50 fire engines were prepared to face the flames along Colorado Highway 66 had the fire jumped the road and river, he said.

The fires’ aftermath presented its own challenges for the town, said Donna Carlson, president of the Estes Chamber of Commerce.

“With COVID co-existing with the evacuation, it’s hard to separate the symptoms,” she said, “but after the fires we hit the gas pedal on getting people back to town for Christmas shopping.

“The biggest hindrance when we got back from the evacuation last October is that there is a certain population in Estes Park that would really like to see tourism go away. They reached out to news agencies saying it’s not safe to come back,” she said. “So the Chamber and Visit Estes Park got on the horn with the media, sent them lots of pictures, and invited them to bring news crews to town to make sure that everybody knows it’s perfectly safe to come here. It worked. They came.”

They’re still coming.

“This summer’s been incredible,” said Adam Shake, president and chief executive of the Estes Park Economic Development Corp. “A lot of that is just people’s pent-up need to travel, both after COVID and probably a little bit because of the wildfires. But sales-tax revenue has broken records every month since May.” The town’s 2020 numbers were down because of pandemic-related restrictions, he said, but “since May we’ve broken 2019 month-by-month records across the board.”

“A lot of guests are interested in seeing the aftermath in the national park, how it affected the landscape,” Oppermann added. “Grasses and wildflowers have started to grow back, and they’re interested in seeing the regrowth.”

What’s changed in the Estes Valley?

“Fire awareness changed quite a bit,” Shake said. “Everybody’s much more fire aware than they were.”

Wolf agreed. “People are taking a bit more proactive action on their own properties, getting assessments done and mitigation work, finding ways to make their properties safer.”

Like the cabins in the forest at the YMCA, “we have a lot of homes that are deep in the wildland interface,” he said. “The same things that make them appealing places to live are the things that make them challenging. So people want to understand what they can do, how they can be proactive.

“We’re starting to hear more from insurance companies about that as well. Mitigation costs less than fighting the fire.”

At least one lodge owner said insurance rates have spiked since the wildfire. “Insurance rates increased by about 25%,” said Teresa Commerford, owner of StoneBrook on Fall River resort.

The fire district does home assessments, puts on presentations for homeowners’ associations and coordinates with the national park and forest services.

“Most of our approach with business is working very closely with our chamber and EDC to try to make sure businesses are aware of resources available to them — not just from a fire perspective but the disruption to their business, how they can be prepared for things like that, how they can manage that type of uncertainty,” Wolf said. “The chamber and EDC have really been the right leads on those types of projects, making sure businesses understand what happened, why it happened and what it could look like if it happened again.”

“I want to commend Chief Wolf and a lot of wildfire educators in the national park for being very proactive in communicating mitigating ideas, providing resources and attending our sessions to answer questions,” Carlson said.

For Wildlife Awareness Month in May, the chamber partnered with the local Board of Realtors to provide an educational series on wildfire, but even though attendance was lackluster, Carlson saw a silver lining. “The lack of participation tells me that our community was anxious to get back to business,” she said. “I hope that tells me that we know what we need.”

Through grants and assistance from the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the fire district developed educational materials including videos and printed material, Wolf said.

Earlier this year, more than 50 people involved in fire and emergency response, emergency management and law enforcement came together to talk through an evacuation. “Given that we had had the evacuation last year,” Wolf said, “we were able to use that conversation to deconstruct what went well and areas where opportunities for improvements are needed — and make sure everybody was on the same page with the plan.”

No changes have been made so far in Estes Park’s fire codes, Wolf said, adding that “the town has an ordinance that requires defensible space, but that’s limited to the town, not the county.”

“A wildland urban interface code has been looked at but never seriously considered for adoption,” he said. “That is a conversation that’s happening at the county level right now about whether or not it’s an appropriate thing to do, because that includes construction standards for things that are built within the wildland urban interface. We do reference people to it, but it’s not an in-place code.”

Wolf expects more focus on wildfire codes as the realization of the effects of a changing climate sinks in, even to skeptics.

“As our fire seasons continue to get worse, I think we’re going to have more conversations about those, whether that’s coming from the town or county or even insurance companies driving that and saying, ‘We want you to protect our investment, so here’s some of the ways we can do that.”

Wolf has been able to focus property owners on the increasing threat “when I share what the last 20 years have looked like — the increase in fire intensity, their scale, their cost, all of these things. Whatever you want to believe is the reason, we are seeing our fire seasons get longer, the number of large fires increasing and the impact of those fires increasing.

“That’s the reality we’re dealing with,” Wolf said. “We can’t put our heads in the sand and ignore it.”

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ESTES PARK — “We were told to expect to lose the YMCA of the Rockies, and if that happened, it was very likely that the fire would spread into Estes Park,” recalled Rachel Oppermann. “To hear that information, you know it was close.”

Surrounded on three sides by Rocky Mountain National Park, the sprawling 860-acre YMCA of the Rockies’ Estes Park Center includes more than 250 wooden cabins on heavily forested hillsides. If the massive East Troublesome Fire that roared across the Continental Divide and onto the park’s east side last October had crossed Bear Lake Road and the Big Thompson River and onto the tinder-dry YMCA property, little could have been done to keep it out of the evacuated town and its inns, restaurants and shops.

That horrible prospect was especially haunting for Oppermann, who is both marketing and communications manager for Visit Estes Park and a volunteer with the Allenspark Fire Protection District.

“That was a very overwhelming feeling,” said Oppermann, whose voice still quivers at the memory all these months later. “If the fire enters Estes Park, not only does it potentially ruin people’s homes but it potentially ruins people’s ability to support themselves in the community through the tourism businesses.”

When Estes Park’s population was emptied Oct. 22, the town was threatened both from the East Troublesome Fire a mile to its west and the Cameron Peak Fire two miles to its north in the Glen Haven area, said Chief David Wolf of the Estes Valley Fire Protection District. The…