Fires in Colorado, Wyoming continue to blaze

Holly Jessen
for The Fence Post
A firefighter monitors the Mullen fire at night. The fire is 14 percent contained and is keeping nearly 1,080 personnel busy, having spread to nearly 171,000 acres by Thursday.
Photo by Zach Alexander

Ranchers in Colorado and Wyoming are continuing to be impacted by an active fire season, with multiple fires in both states, including the Mullen and Cameron Peak fires, the two largest fires, which firefighters are continuing to work to contain.

“We haven’t seen this magnitude of fire in a long time,” said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, pointing to the amount of beetle-killed trees providing fuel for the fire as a factor.

The Cameron Peak fire started Aug. 13, about 15 miles southwest of Red Feather Lakes, Colo., and spans more than 128,000 acres. It is 42 percent contained as of Thursday, according to the National Wildlife Coordinating Group incident information system website. Nearly 1,000 personnel are on site and the cause is under investigation.

This fire hasn’t had a big impact on ranchers at this point, Fankhauser said, because it’s not deeply in cattle country. However, it could have an impact in the future, depending on if it continues to burn in a direction where more cattle are located. The Mullen fire, which started in Wyoming Sept. 17 and went over the Colorado border Sept. 30, has reached nearly 171,000 acres. It was 14 percent contained as of Thursday and had nearly 1,080 personnel on site. The cause is under investigation.

Terry Walter of Walter Angus, based in Hudson, Colo., said friends and even strangers helped their operation avoid disaster last week when the Mullen fire threatened a couple hundred cows and some calves, pastured on land near the Wyoming-Colorado state line. He and his son, Ty Walter, rent private land there, which is surrounded by the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.

Conditions changed and they had to get the animals out quickly. Scott Shepherd put the word out and many came to help. “When they knew our cows were in trouble, they all came,” Terry said, adding that cowboys brought horses and there were semi-trailers, too. “These people are selfless, they just completely dropped what they were doing.”

Ty posted about it on Facebook, saying he was so thankful to the many heroes who helped. “It is hard to put into words how humbling it is when people will drop what they are doing to head into a blazing fire to help someone,” he said.

The flames came within a half a mile and it was close, but they got out in time, Terry said. The manager of Park Range Ranch helped out and the animals spent the night there until the brand inspector could come so they could be moved back to home base in Hudson. Terry said he’s humbled and amazed by the way people helped them, something he didn’t think people did anymore. “I’d sure like to be able to return the favor someday,” he said.


Although some cattle may die in these fires, Fankhauser said he expects that to be minimal, unlike what’s been happening in California. The financial impact will come from multiple directions. In some cases, like with the Grizzly Creek and Pine Gulch fires, which are now contained or nearly so, ranchers had to move their cattle off grazing land about a month earlier than normal and either have to find other pastures or supplement with feed earlier than expected. Others will have to pay veterinary bills for cattle sickened by smoke inhalation.

The next rain after a fire brings with it danger of devastating flooding and severe soil erosion, due to lack of vegetation. Fankhauser talked about rains after a fire last year which left hillsides running red with dirt, which can impact infrastructure like drainage ditches and leave the topography of the land unstable. It negatively impacts wildlife too, such as when streams get filled with dirt, killing the fish. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he said.

The question for the future is whether ranchers will be able to put cattle back on burned permitted grazing lands next year or in following years. In some areas, the plant life will rebound quickly. But when fences and pipelines or tanks for water are destroyed, it may result in ranchers unable to use those acres. “It’s a very considerable expense in some cases, to be able to put cattle back,” he said. “That may be nearly impossible to recover from.”

Regardless of whether climate change plays a role in the large amount of beetle-killed trees in the forests, Fankhauser believes the solution is prescriptive management. The reason these fires are burning hotter and faster this year is because of mismanagement, with the forests not being logged and beetle infestations that were not controlled with herbicide. “We do need to get back to management,” he said.


The Middle Fork Fire started Sept. 6, due to lightning, in the Routt National Forest, Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, approximately 10 miles north of Steamboat Springs, Colo. It is still active and has burned 11,005 acres and there are 70 personnel on site. There are no evacuation orders in effect as it is entirely in the wilderness area.

The Williams Fork Fire started Aug. 14 and was caused by human activity about 10 miles southwest of Fraser, Colo. It has burned 14,005 acres and is 25 percent contained. It is within a game hunting management area in rugged terrain and no evacuation orders are in effect.

The Grizzly Creek Fire started Aug. 10 due to human activity, one mile east of Glenwood Springs, Colo. As of Tuesday, the last time the website was updated, the fire had burned a total of 32,431 acres, had 91 percent of it’s perimeter contained and eight firefighters were on site.

The Pine Gulch Fire is 100 percent contained as of Sept. 24. It started July 31 due to lightning, 18 miles north of Grand Junction, Colo. It burned 139,007 acres. The Thorpe Fire is 100 percent contained as of Aug. 29. It started Aug. 23 in Park County in central Colorado, and burned 159 acres.

The Lone Star Fire started Aug. 22 due to lightning 3 miles south of the Old Faithful developed area, 23 miles southeast of West Yellowstone, Mont., and burned into Wyoming. A total of 46 personnel were on site and it burned 4,118 acres in a mature forest. ❖

— Jessen is a freelance writer living in Minnesota with her nurse husband and daughter. They recently settled down after more than three years living a travel lifestyle, thanks to her husband’s travel nurse job. She can be reached at


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