CalWood Fire: Firsthand Account

At approximately 12:30 p.m. on a very windy Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, dispatch aired a smoke report coming in from the Cal-Wood Education Center property. At 12:42 p.m., it was reported as a one-acre fire. By 12:44 it was eight acres in size. At 1:37, evacuations were first ordered; and by 3:34, the head of the fire jumped Highway 36.

I was home at the Heil Valley Ranch residence in Geer Canyon, when my wife pointed out a column of smoke rising above the forested ridge to the west. “Is that something new?” she asked me. I immediately grabbed my pack radio and turned it on to hear that a small wildland fire was active at the Cal-Wood Education Center property, located directly west of Heil Valley Ranch. She then asked, “should we pack up for evacuation?” I responded, “YES!” We left our home at 2:20 p.m., as flames were visibly moving down the hillside. This was a fast moving, wind-driven fire, and we were sure that all would be lost.

The next morning, we were surprised to find our home, alongside an historical barn and cabin, still standing! Defensible space was definitely a big factor in saving the structures but, nonetheless, a miraculous sight to see. Other nearby residents were not so lucky.

Impact on Heil Valley Ranch

This season’s long-term drought, coupled with warm, windy conditions, provided a formula for the perfect storm. Assessing the impacts and damage the fire left in its wake had its ups and downs. Overall, much of the landscape experienced a high-severity burn, with entire forested hillsides and canyons torched. Man-made structures, such as bridges, fences, and signs, were lost, and hazard trees too numerous to count will need to be mitigated. Seven of the eight trails at the property were affected, and two of the three sensitively managed conservation areas were burned severely. These areas will need staff assessment and mitigation.

Restoration will be a must. Staff is presently forming an inter-agency plan to address the environmental and safety concerns. Hillside erosion into the waterways of St. Vrain Creek and Lefthand Canyon Creek is the biggest concern. Invasive weeds, such as thistles and cheatgrass, will also be a management priority. We will look to the experiences of another wind-driven fire, the Overland Fire, which burned October 2003, and affected the south end of Heil Valley Ranch, for guidance in rehabbing the landscape.

There is no timeline for when Heil Valley Ranch will reopen to park visitors. Healing of the landscape affected by the fire will take time, and we ask for patience and cooperation from the public as we start this long process.

How to Help

These organizations are accepting donations for fire recovery efforts.