USA — For nearly four months, the Cow Creek fire has crawled over rugged terrain and chewed through 1,100 acres of forest that hadn’t been touched by a major blaze for nearly four centuries.
No people or structures are threatened by the fire, burning about 7 miles north of Estes Park, just below tree line in Rocky Mountain National Park.
For now, fire managers are content to keep it boxed in and let it burn, reaping the environmental benefits of a blaze that might continue until the first major snow.
“Right now, it’s just creeping along the ground, doing its job,” said Mike Lewelling, the park’s fire management officer.
In the first few days after a lightning strike started
Cow Creek on June 24, officials worried they were dealing with a major threat to life and property.
High winds pushed the fire toward the east, threatening structures and communities that lie just outside the park’s boundaries. Both Estes Park and tiny Glen Haven were in its path, Lewelling said.
Hand crews and helicopters kept the fire from spreading to the north, south and east. By early July, much of the Cow Creek blaze had been contained, and heavy rains through July and August slowed its march westward, moving uphill toward the tundra, Lewelling said.
But by early September, the timber and grass began to dry out, raising more smoke. The fire is being allowed to slowly burn on its western flank, with 10-member crews monitoring its advance.
“The area is steep and rugged with lots of heavy fuels and downed timber,” Lewelling said. “It’s moving really slow and burning hot.”
Meanwhile, it’s creating a natural fire break that will slow the intensity and spread of large, fast-moving fires in the future. The fire is also consuming downed logs and debris, allowing nutrients to be recycled back into the soil, said Nate Williamson, fire ecologist for the park.
Already, Williamson said, aspen trees are springing up in the areas first burned by the fire.
Surveys determined the last major fire in that area occurred about 370 years ago.
Letting Mother Nature take her course is also easier on the bottom line, say fire officials. Cow Creek has so far cost less than $4 million to fight.
“It’s a lot cheaper having firefighters on the ground rather than having airplanes flying over and dropping retardant,” said fire information officer Mike Johnson.