Cameron Peak Fire bypasses Mountain Campus structures over the weekend

Thanks to the heroic efforts of crews battling the massive Cameron Peak Fire, all structures at Colorado State University’s Mountain Campus have avoided the flames for now.

The Cameron Peak Fire, the third largest in state history at 134,559 acres, roared through the Mountain Campus area of Pingree Park on Oct. 9-10, burning much of the forests that surround the area. However, fire crews – assisted by fire mitigation measures put into place in recent years and in the weeks since the fire first ignited in early August– managed to protect all of the structures on the 1,600-acre campus.

“I’m thankful every moment of every day these last few weeks as the fire moved closer to the Mountain Campus for the work of these fire crews,” said John Hayes, dean of the Warner College of Natural Resources. “What a challenging environment it has to be up there, with the wind, the heat, the dry conditions and the thousands of dead trees due to the mountain pine beetle. I am so deeply thankful for those crews and have been thinking, ‘What we can possibly do to express our thanks to them?’ ”

This flight footage taken from a heavy helicopter assisting with retardant drops at CSU Mountain Campus shows the ongoing structure protection efforts on Oct. 10. Protective red retardant lines around the campus assisted ground crews in performing defensive burnout operations to remove fuels around the structures. Video courtesy Cameron Peak Fire Incident Command.

The Mountain Campus, which opened as a summer forestry camp in 1914, is unique among university facilities in the U.S. Located at 9,000 feet above sea level and bordering Rocky Mountain National Park, the campus is home to classrooms, laboratory and research facilities, student and faculty housing, a dining hall and conference center. It is operated by CSU’s Housing and Dining Services, and Warner College of Natural Resources is the primary academic user of the campus, which hosts thousands of visitors annually.

Mitigation measures

The area has seen wildfires before. In 1994, the Hourglass Fire started near the campus and, despite being only 1,300 acres when it was extinguished, destroyed 13 campus structures. The High Park Fire in 2012 threatened campus but didn’t damage any structures.

Seth Webb, director of the Mountain Campus, said proactive fire mitigation steps have been taken in recent years to help protect campus buildings. Metal roofs have been placed on buildings to minimize the threat from flying embers, and most trees near buildings were cleared.

Once the fire began, crews installed sprinklers and had fire hoses and trucks ready to defend buildings. Since the campus had been closed for months due to the pandemic, only a handful of workers – including those building a new $4 million wastewater treatment facility – had to evacuate as the fire approached.

“We were able to provide crews with a map prioritizing buildings and the historic homestead ranch district and they really concentrated on making sure those structures were protected,” said Webb, director since 2017. “The crews did a phenomenal job protecting all of the campus.”

The homestead district, on the south end of the campus, is the site of the original Ramsey/Koenig homestead from the late 1800s. The family home, barn, schoolhouse, root cellar and cemetery are part of the historic site that has been painstakingly preserved.

Fire continues to burn

While the campus survived the weekend, the fire continues to burn and threaten other structures in the area. As of Sunday, the fire was 47 percent contained, with high winds and lower humidity expected to hamper crews buoyed by lower temperatures and a small amount of much-need moisture that fell Saturday night. Crews remain active in the area, providing point and structure protection on campus, at the nearby Sky Ranch Lutheran Camp and other homes and ranches.

Webb said that, while the surrounding forest has been damaged, the campus will continue to be a treasured place for those lucky enough to spend time there.

“Over the years we’ve experienced fires, the floods of 2013 and even a tornado that touched down on campus in the late 1980s, so dealing with natural hazards is just part of what you contend with when you run a campus at 9,000 feet,” he said. “For more than 100 years, this place has been part of CSU and provided transformative experiences. It’s been a site for amazing academic and personal growth. It’s a place that change lives, and I’m so glad it’s still intact.”