ESTES PARK, Colo. (CBS4) – An increase in illegal campfires in a popular hiking, camping, picnicking and sightseeing area has officials concerned as the Labor Day holiday weekend gets underway.

Since September 24, Rocky Mountain National Park firefighters have had to fight four illegal camp fires that escaped and could easily have gotten out of control, park rangers said Friday.

Each fire was set by people camping illegally in the park. Two threatened hard-to-reach backcountry areas near Fern Lake and Ouzel Lake. Two others were set along Fall River Road, just 100 yards from the roadway.

“It’s very concerning to us as park managers,” said Kyle Patterson, public affairs officer for Rocky Mountain National Park.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Though Colorado has been mostly spared from devastating wildfires this year, rangers say vegetation that grew bountifully during spring’s heavy rains is now drying out, becoming fuel for fires to expand.

Year-round fire restrictions exist within Rocky Mountain National Park to protect its natural lands. Campfires may only be set at designated campgrounds and some picnic areas throughout the park, and must be contained within a campfire ring.

“We want it to be in the front country rather than people having campfires in the backcountry where it has a lot more potential to spread,” Patterson said.

To have several close calls with illegal fires within a 10-day span is raising concerns among park managers. In each case, Patterson says, visitors discovered the fires and notified park management. Some of the fire sites appeared to have been doused with water, likely by illegal campers hoping to cover their tracks. But the water did not do enough to suppress the fires and stop them from smoldering. Each fire was contained before it grew larger than a 1/4 acre, but had the potential to threaten lives and property.

“Many people might not realize the magnitude of what can happen,” Patterson said.

In 2012, an illegal campfire sparked the Fern Lake blaze, which forced the evacuation of parts of Estes Park, burned 3,000 acres, and cost more than $6 million to clean up. The fire began on October 6, 2012 and was not considered fully extinguished until the following summer.

Fighting such fires started by illegal camping, even when they are relatively small in size, can be extremely dangerous and challenging, says Mike Lewelling, the park’s fire management officer.

“We have very, very remote backcountry,” Lewelling said.

Firefighters work on the fire lines of the Fern Lake Fire in the first week of December 2012. (credit: CBS)

Firefighters work on the fire lines of the Fern Lake Fire in the first week of December 2012. (credit: CBS)

Reaching and mopping up the recent fire set at Ouzel Lake took firefighters most of a day, including a 10-mile round trip hike, while carrying 25-pound chainsaws and 45-pound backpacks filled with two days’ worth of food and water. To make sure the recent Fern Lake fire was completely out, firefighters camped at the site overnight.

“The logistics of it is pretty tough,” Lewelling said.

The pine beetle epidemic has also made circumstances more life-threatening for crews. Lewelling cited instances of dead, dried out trees, ravaged by the insect, falling on top of and killing firefighters as they hiked through remote regions, trying to reach fires.

“The pine beetles have definitely made a change in how we approach fire in the park,” Lewelling said. “Now we have to think about the safety of the firefighters just walking through the woods.”

He says he’s now faced with the difficult decision of assessing that additional risk every time he considers whether to send crews in to check out a report of a fire.

Park rangers are reminding visitors to pay attention to restrictions, and notify them if they smell smoke outside a designated area. Especially in the back country, a hiker or backpacker may be the first person to spot a problem and get help.

Lauren DiSpirito is CBS4’s Northern Newsroom reporter. Follow her on Twitter @CBS4Lauren. Share your story ideas with her here.


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