This is the ninth post in Fire Stories, a 12 part series of pieces edited by Mica Jorgenson and written by environmental historians and their disciplinary neighbours about encountering fire in the archives and on the land.
On the day the biggest wildfire in Colorado history started, I was working for the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest in Northern Colorado. It was the last summer seasonal job I had before starting my position as a historian at the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands at Colorado State University. Before the fire my work at the United States Forest Service (USFS) involved everything from monitoring and maintaining front country recreation sites, taking trail counts, fixing fences, posting updates to information boards, and answering questions for visitors. All that changed on August 13, 2020. I remember driving to a trailhead not far from where the fire started to take a vehicle count when I heard a dispatcher call out the fire over the radio. At the end of our shift, my supervisor called our crew together for a meeting. A fire had started near Cameron Peak, and she needed us to head back into the forest to evacuate dispersed campers near the fire. Over the next few months, the Cameron Peak Fire burned 208,913 acres, and destroyed 469 structures.
As the fire spread, my day-to-day tasks drastically changed. I went from rarely leaving front country sites in the popular recreation destinations of the Poudre Canyon, Red Feather Lakes, and a few trailheads near Estes Park (gateway community to Rocky Mountain National Park) to patrolling the tangled forest roads in the closure area while the fire loomed. At first I looked for car campers, hunters, hikers, and the occasional prospector who slipped past the road blocks or disregarded the signs declaring the forest was closed. I then shifted to a combination of patrolling areas outside the fire closure to enforce campfire bans and sitting at roadblocks to make sure people did not enter the closure.
From the beginning, the fire was referred to in its historic context. Fire managers talked about dates of last burns and past management and mitigation. The media constantly talked about how the fire was making history both locally and as part of a larger pattern of hotter, more fire prone summers in the West. I appreciated history being a part of the discussion, but I wanted more, since there is a wealth of great work written about public land management in the West, recreation as consumption, development, and climate change.1 As I drove up to the forest at the start of my shift, I tuned into the local public radio station to hear news about the fire and thought about the factors that led to the present moment like the USFS’s 10 a.m. policy and other historically-constructed management decisions.2 Yet the Cameron Peak Fire was more than the result of human action – it was also the product of ecological change. Every road I patrolled, I read the landscape for clues about what the fire might do next.
As a non-firefighting employee, much of my work on before the fire was isolated, unnoticed, and not very glamorous. However, during the fire, that changed. I would come across hot shot crews from other states and talk to them about the fire and changes. It no longer mattered what my job was, I had a USFS uniform on and was part of the fire effort. The fire created a sense of comradery among USFS employees. Sure, we all worked on the same land before the fire, but during the fire we were all working on a much clearer, common goal. We were brought together by the emergency and also by the USFS’s history of fighting wildfires.
Part of my work was removing campers from the fire closure. I would start taking notes in a patrol log: how many cars, how many campers, and what types of recreation I observed. Then I contacted the campers, gave them a closure map and a Forest Closure Order notice, and told them to evacuate. Usually the first question was “Where else can we go to camp?” – followed by something about having no idea about the fire, or a complaint that it was far away from their site and ridiculous that they had to leave. People get testy when you tell them they can’t camp somewhere. These interactions with recreationists were rooted in an entitlement to recreate on the land, even in a dangerous situation. Such sentiments were usually accompanied by the argument that “they were taxpayers and it was public land.”
As the fire continued to burn, I found myself at a fire archive in the making. Spot fires broke out daily and the fire showed no sign of slowing down. The weather was not helping as the relative humidity stayed low and winds high. Other large fires broke out across the area too and were intensifying, like the East Troublesome Fire, the second largest wildfire in Colorado history, which was not too far from the Cameron Peak fire. It was easy to imagine the reports, maps, and closure orders produced daily in the hands of a future fire historian. Being on the side of producing primary resources as opposed to studying them felt good for a change. It gave me a sense of contribution to the historic record that I had not felt before. I tried to be detailed enough without being exhaustive. While patrolling, I also came across numerous cultural resources (remnants of homesteads, trash scatters, etc.). Nothing I saw would be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places but losing some of those sites, though already in ruins, weakened our connection to the past, and changed the ecology in the present.
Although the hotshots make the news and are featured in the history books, I also performed tasks that were important to fighting the fire. In fact, nearly everyone at the station helped in their own different ways to support the fire crews. I remember coming down from the fire area one day and seeing visitor information employees, who worked from behind a help desk in town, putting up closure notices and maps at picnic areas. Where do such “small” histories of loss and labor fit into the sweeping discourse of larger fire narratives?
The fire kept burning into the early winter and USFS declared it was 100% contained on December 3, 2020. It was the largest wildfire in Colorado history and reflected a pattern of increasingly large, intense summer fires in the American West. The experience added to my perspective as a historian of public lands. Being on the ground gave me such a different insight as how fire events unfold, are managed, and related to. I developed a fuller sense of public land management: the unnoticed work, the interactions with the public, and the difficulty in implementing words on a management plan that I would not have gotten from reading reports and memorandums from the archive. My subsequent career as a historian benefited from knowing the land through wildfire work. I would encourage anyone interested in writing about public lands to spend a summer working as a seasonal — you never know what major event you might become a part of.
- See Steven Pyne, Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997); Lincoln Bramwell, Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016); Terrance Young Heading Out: A History of American Camping (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017); Adam Sowards, Making America’s Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022); Diane M. Smith, “The Origins of Forest Service Wildland Fire Research,” (Missoula, MT: US Forest Service Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, Rocky Mountain Research Station, 2017)
- Smith, “The Origins of Forest Service Wildland Fire Research,” 39.
Latest posts by Dillon Maxwell (see all)
- A Fire Archive in the Making: Working the 2020 Cameron Peak Fire - September 23, 2022