The Black Mountain Fire (2002)


2002 was the worst fire season in Colorado history.  It was the year the Hayman Fire and major fires near Durango, Estes Park, Dinosaur, well…everywhere, prompted Governor Bill Owens to remark, “Today, it looks like all of Colorado is on fire.”  The Guv got slammed in the press for saying that, but he was pretty much right on the mark with that statement.

But most of those fires were still in the future when the Black Mountain Fire started on May 5, 2002 and burned for 5 days. It caused the evacuation of 2,400 people in 1,700 homes in the Evergreen-Conifer area.  Approximately 270 firefighters, from the Elk Creek Volunteer Fire Department, and crews from as far away as Virginia, fought the blaze.  Equipment included 5 air tankers and 2 helicopters, dropping over 100,000 gallons of water and at least 22 drops of chemical retardant. It burned 345 acres and came within 3/4 mile of the nearest residence. But no structures were lost and no firefighters were seriously injured.</p>

The weather was of little help, with a Red Flag day on the third day of the fire (Red Flag Days are those with the most dangerous combinations of high winds and low humidity).

I was out of town when it happened, but my sister was one of 2,000 residents who were evacuated that day.  She didn’t want to leave, so my wife drove over to Brook Forest to get her to comply with the mandatory evacuation order.

If you don’t live in the Black Mountain / Brook Forest area, you probably don’t even remember the fire.  In the annals of fir lore, it is a “forgettable” fire.  And for that, we have firefighters from the Elk Creek Fire Department to thank.  The wildland firefighters – from the local volunteers to the professional hot shot crews – always bust their butts, displaying courage, tenacity and abundant skill.   It also takes good fortune and expert decision-making to get a fire under control before it becomes notorious.  In this case, it probably helped that the fire was early in what was shaping up to be the worst fire season ever in Colorado.  It might have been a harder slog one month later, when the monster Hayman Fire broke out 30 miles to the south.

I grew up in Virginia, a state with a lot of Civil War battlefields.  The stories told on their historical markers were usually about armies vying for, and trying to hold, the high ground.  That was where battles were won or lost – the high ground.  Firefighting is not so different.  Every effort is expended on keeping the fire from overtopping a ridge.  Once over, powerful downslope winds can fan the flames rapidly into the canyons and valleys beyond.

If you follow the coordinates to this cache site, you will be standing at this fire’s Pickett’s Charge.  The firefighters knew this was the spot where they had to make a stand, if the fire was to be kept out of Brook Forest.  Five air tankers and two helicopters dumped over a 100,000 gallons of water and over 22 air drops of fire retardant, focused largely at this nexus.  Approximately 270 firefighters were on the ground digging and cutting fire lines on the ridge.  The retardant has largely degraded and the battle lines are covered with burned and fallen timber.  But for the residents of the Brook Forest and Black Mountain areas below, this promontory is the place where the fire was stopped and their homes spared.

Click this link to go to the cache page:


U.S. Forest Service, Black Mountain Fire Incident Information (web page).