GALLERIES: COLORADO'S WORST WILDFIRES
POUDRE PARK, Colo. (AP) – Embers swirled above Poudre Park during a wildfire so big and so close that people could hear it, smell it and feel it.
The sky glowed a menacing red-orange. Nobody expected the High Park Fire to furiously sprint several miles north from its origin to the tiny community tucked deep inside Poudre Canyon – at least, not the same day it started.
To many of its roughly 40 full-time residents, Poudre Park was doomed. They’d watched in relative comfort as the Hewlett Fire burned in mid-May, but the High Park Fire’s surprise arrival in the neighborhood on the night of June 9, 2012, caused immediate horror. People left even before their phones started ringing due to evacuation orders.
Julie Skenandore, 30, loaded her car with her two kids and some clothes, but she couldn’t fit the pet birds.
“Campers started screaming,” she said of visitors in tents near the Poudre River. “The power went out, too.”
Seven homes were lost just outside the community, and 259 total were destroyed in the 87,284-acre High Park Fire. However, no structures burned in Poudre Park, which sits between Colorado Highway 14 and the river.
Residents say the firefighters saved their community.
A year later, life in Fort Collins has returned to normal, but the canyon community gets daily reminders of the fire, as helicopter flyovers continue since the snow melted.
On the canyon’s north side, a wide stain from red-colored slurry dropped to contain the Hewlett Fire has persisted through winter. There are still sandbags near the roads, placed for protection from the floods that rushed through the canyon after the ground was scalded. And the floods could return.
The helicopters start about sunrise. Five flyovers occurred during a two-hour visit to the area. The operations consist mostly of aerial mulching by the U.S. Forest Service to help the damaged earth recover.
Becky Lunsford and her husband, Roger, still have the Columbine Lodge – Poudre Park’s only store and campground. But the evacuations and absence of tourists due to the 2012 fires “devastated my business,” Becky Lunsford said.
The result: income less than half that of the previous year.
“I spent all my savings just getting from winter to spring,” she said.
The Columbine Lodge is in its 84th year, and this might be the year it gets a new name.
Even after the fire was contained, Becky said, “People were afraid to come.”
She stood at the store’s desk just inside the screen door, sipping beer from a blue koozie and answering the phone.
She’s hopeful that the business they’ve owned for seven years will succeed as summer weather arrives, and she’s thinking of calling it the “Rusty Buffalo Campground and Store,” a landmark to go with the rusted sculpture out front.
“It’s going to be a slow recovery,” Roger Lunsford said. “It’ll never be the same.”
The wildfire brought out the best in people.
The Lunsfords gave a friend a place to stay when his home was destroyed.
During evacuations, Skenandore, her husband and two kids were given a free apartment at Campus Crossings at Ram’s Pointe, a student-housing complex in Fort Collins near Colorado State University. Units were open because students were away for summer break.
The complex hosted 35 people total: 13 families in as many units, Ram’s Pointe Community Manager Emilee Harback said in an email.
“They were the best to us,” Skenandore said.
She said people helped provide dishes after the family only had time to grab clothes when scrambling from the fire.
Back in Poudre Park, firefighters made sure the birds were fed.
The Red Cross of Northern Colorado provided an array of help during the wildfire, with some services continuing today. Poudre Park residents said they were surprised at how long help was provided after the smoke cleared.
“Those people are wonderful,” said Diane Barger, the Columbine Lodge scheduler who stayed at the Red Cross evacuation shelter last year. She said she couldn’t sleep well on the cot, so they gave her a hospital bed.
Sand bags, food, water, bedding, health services, tree removal, tools, clothing and more were provided or facilitated.
Retired elementary-school teacher Steve Den, 64, doesn’t have as much to worry about as the Columbine Lodge owners.
He and his neighbor, Tom White, 70, sat on his wooden deck at the river’s edge as Den’s poodle, Sturgie, watched whitewater rafters float by. From the shoreline facing north, the grasses are green and only a handful of trees show fire damage.
The local deer, mink, bobcats, bears and birds are all back and very much alive.
If anything, Den said the wildfire showed him the big picture.
“I’m just a grain of sand on the beach,” he said, adding that nature is “awesome, because when she wants to kick butt, she’s going to kick butt.”
The night the High Park Fire popped up, he grabbed Sturgie and a can of Copenhagen, jumped in his truck and hit the road. He had to roll up the windows to shield against the heat.
“We expected that we would come back to nothing but ashes,” White said.
The two men spent about two weeks living out of their trucks in the parking lot at Ted’s Place, east of the canyon and just outside an evacuated perimeter enforced by the Colorado National Guard.
Den lost a couple of geocaches, buried boxes used for a GPS-based treasure hunting activity, to the fire. One near the Hewlett trailhead contained memories of his late sweetheart. The other was near Colorado 14 and had information on nature and mountain pine beetles.
“A number of valuable friends of ours lost everything,” Den said.
Inside Den’s home are walls covered in framed pictures, mostly of area wildlife. When he evacuated, the windows were still open, and light debris floated in.
“I haven’t dusted the ash off of them,” Den said of his pictures. “I just leave it there for the memory.”
- Visit CBSDenver.com’s Wildfire Resources section.
- Read recent Wildfire stories.
Wildfire Photo Galleries
- By ROBERT ALLEN, The Coloradoan
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)