Ignited by lightning in early June 2012, the High Park Fire became one of the largest and most destructive wildfires in Colorado history, burning 87,415 acres along the Cache la Poudre River in the mountains west of Fort Collins. By the time it was fully contained on June 30, the High Park Fire had destroyed more than 250 houses and killed one person. Insured property losses totaled more than $113 million.
In the aftermath, mitigation crews from a number of local, state, and federal agencies worked to secure the health of the Poudre River, a major water source for the city of Fort Collins that was threatened by erosion and runoff in the burned area. One year later, the denuded landscape left by the High Park Fire intensified the effects of the devastating 2013 Floods in northern Colorado.
In late spring 2012, climatologists declared 100 percent of Colorado to be under drought conditions, brought on in part because of below-average winter snow totals. A heat wave gripped the northern Front Range from Denver to the Wyoming border. In June alone, Fort Collins saw a record twelve days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. A lightning strike on June 7 near East White Pine Mountain, about fifteen miles west of Fort Collins, ignited the High Park Fire, which was reported on June 9. Over the next three days, authorities sent evacuation notices to 474 local phone numbers as windy conditions blew the fire up to some 43,000 acres. Nearly 500 firefighters were dispatched to the conflagration and more than 100 structures were already burned.
It was in these first few days that the fire claimed its only victim, sixty-three-year-old Linda Steadman, who died when her cabin was engulfed in flames off Stove Prairie Road, several miles south of Highway 14. Many other residents were able to safely evacuate along Highway 14, either east to Fort Collins or west to Walden.
A Protracted Fight
Over the next two weeks, the number of evacuation orders increased to more than 1,000, as weather conditions continued to hinder efforts to contain the fire. By the week of June 17, wind gusts of up to fifty miles per hour had intermittently grounded aircraft attempting to drop fire retardant, though seventeen helicopters did eventually help contain the blaze. By June 19, the High Park Fire’s eleventh day, more than 1,900 personnel were deployed along 49 miles of fire lines. Despite being 55 percent contained, the fire had grown to more than 55,000 acres and burned nearly 200 houses.
Assisted by members of the National Guard, firefighting efforts continued through June 25, when authorities told The Denver Post they were “cautiously optimistic” about the fire’s final containment. But by that point, the fire had reached historic proportions. At 87,000 acres, it was then the third-largest fire by area in state history. It had already claimed more than 250 houses and more than $113 million in property, which made it the most destructive fire in state history—until it was surpassed just weeks later by the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs. The damage was not limited to the burned area—a 2013 study found that the air quality in Fort Collins during the High Park Fire was as bad as some of the most polluted cities in the world. Total firefighting costs came in at $38.4 million.
On June 30, the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office announced that the High Park Fire had been 100 percent contained. All evacuation orders were lifted, and crews reopened Highway 14, which now ran alongside a Poudre River blackened by ash. Some 1,200 evacuated residents had been able to return to the burned area as early as June 26. Campgrounds and trailheads in the Poudre Canyon—popular among Fort Collins residents—remained closed for several days, though river access sites were opened immediately.
After the fire was out, one of the immediate challenges for recovery was the checkerboard system of land ownership in the Poudre Canyon—some areas belonged to the federal government, while others were state-managed and still others were private property. To ensure a collaborative and efficient recovery effort, members of local, state, and federal agencies quickly formed the High Park Restoration Coalition, a nonprofit landscape recovery group.
While Poudre Canyon communities have rebuilt amid the scarred landscape, the environmental effects of the High Park Fire are still being felt years later. Most important was the fire’s damage to watersheds that feed the Cache la Poudre River, a major source of drinking water for the city of Fort Collins and surrounding areas.
The High Park Restoration Coalition—which eventually reorganized as the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed (CPRW)—immediately set about identifying priority areas that were susceptible to erosion and watershed damage. According to the US Forest Service, about 48 percent of the High Park Fire area suffered “moderate to high severity” burning, with vegetation completely incinerated in many areas. Without plant roots to hold them in place, soils and fire debris in these high-priority areas tumbled into the Poudre River and its tributaries, threatening to clog downstream water systems and pollute water supplies. To combat postfire erosion, CPRW oversaw large-scale mulching (which helps prevent soil movement) and plant reseeding on more than 10,000 acres of the burned area. Thanks to these and other efforts by CPRW, local water supplies were not affected by the fire.
The next September, consistent rains produced a large-scale flood that wracked several Front Range counties. The flood’s intensity in Larimer County was partially due to the destruction of the High Park Fire the previous year, as water rushed unencumbered over bare slopes and banks. One positive aspect, however, was that the rushing flood waters acted like a giant flushing mechanism for the Poudre River, clearing out tons of fire-wrought sediment and debris that would have otherwise washed out gradually and could have polluted municipal water supplies.
In January 2015, staff at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery began hosting community forums in preparation for a new exhibit, “The High Park Fire: A Community Responds.” The interactive exhibit, which includes photos and artifacts from the fire—as well as video footage of interviews with residents, responders, and eyewitnesses—opened in June 2015 to commemorate the three-year anniversary of the fire. It remains one of the museum’s featured exhibits today.