Battle rages to keep 600-acre Big Meadows Fire from crossing the continental divide

Area is 70-90% beetle-killed trees

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. - Firefighters are battling to keep the 600 acre Big Meadows Fire from crossing the continental divide in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Firefighters want to hold the fire east of Trail Ridge Road (Highway 34), west of the Continental Divide, and north of Tonahutu Creek.

There are 107 firefighters currently on the fire plus the Type II team who will be taking over command of the fire from the Boise Smokejumper Type III team on Thursday.  Air resources include one Type I helicopter, one Type II helicopter and two Type III helicopters.  Many firefighters camped out near the fire Wednesday night to get an early morning start to continue with fire suppression tactics.  

The fire began Monday afternoon when a lightning strike ignited grass in the Big Meadows, 4.5 miles from the Green Mountain Trailhead on the west side of the park, near Grand Lake, said park spokesman Kyle Patterson. Smoke was first reported at 3 p.m.

The fire grew from two acres to 400 acres Tuesday afternoon when a spot fire ignited 200 yards away from the main fire and grew quickly.

"Some embers got out ahead in the middle of the night that smoldered for hours until heat of day came back up," said Ben Bobowski, Chief of Resource Stewardship.

The fire is burning in steep, rugged terrain in an area where pine beetles have killed 70-90 percent of the trees, officials said.

"As many of you know, most of the west side experienced beetle kill years ago and we're working with fuels that have already started to tip over," said Bobowski.

There are seven trails that are temporarily closed in the area – the Onahu Trail, the Green Mountain Trail, the lower Tonahutu Trail, the Tonahutu Spur Trail, the Grand Lake Lodge Spur Trail, the Timber Lake Trail and the trail which branches toward Mount Ida from Milner Pass. 

"There are no structures, no communities immediately at risk," Bobowski said.

Officials are concerned the fire may smolder all summer.

All major roads in the park are still open.


-- Fern Lake Fire still burning --

Meanwhile, the Fern Lake Fire, which started on Oct. 9, 2012, continues to burn near the center of the park.

Unprecedented in the park's history, the 3,500-acre Fern Lake Fire withstood a two-month effort by firefighters from across the country to snuff it last fall. The Fern Lake Fire was temporarily halted by winter snowstorms, but it burns on.

The Fern Lake Fire is located in the largely inaccessible Forest Canyon, which has had been untouched by fire for at least 800 years, according to the park's website. "A long-term drought had left fuels tinder-dry in the forest fuel layer that sometimes exceeds twenty feet deep. Mountain pine beetles have killed half the trees in the canyon, with every compromised tree posing a hazard for firefighters. The typically windy conditions in the canyon only increased the danger," the website says.

"Park fire managers knew from the beginning the Fern Lake Fire was going to be a long-term event. There was limited ability to fight the fire directly because of high winds, steep terrain, and beetle-killed trees. Firefighter safety is the park's number one priority. The high winds impacted both air operations and safety of firefighters," the website says.

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