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Fire on the mountain

July 16, 2009

Lightning in the air...

Nestled in a mountain valley 50 miles west of Fort Collins, Colorado State’s Pingree Park campus is the summer home of natural resource majors and a welcoming place for conference visitors. The 1,200-acre campus is surrounded by a wilderness that’s home to five major biological life zones.

Pingree Park also is steeped in wild, unpredictable forces of nature such as tornados, lightning storms, and fire.

Genesis of a firestorm

On July 1, 1994, a powerful, dry thunderstorm moved through the mountains, sending out lightning strikes and churning up blustery winds. Bill Bertschy, Pingree director at the time, remembers being jolted awake about 2 a.m. by a loud clap of thunder. He watched as lightning cracked across the night sky – not unusual at all – but by mid-morning the scent of smoke signaled a new, urgent worry.

By noon, a small, lightning-sparked fire a few miles away had become an inferno, fed by dense, dry forest and 50 mph wind gusts. The immediate concern, as fire reports poured in, was the safety of about 90 CSU natural resource students, an Elderhostel group, and staff. All the students were in camp, but the Elderhostel participants had left that morning for an all-day hike to Mummy Pass. They needed to be found and brought to safety.

Close call

The fire was blazing toward Pingree when Bertschy sent Pat Rastall, who now is director of the camp, to find the Elderhostel hikers. By 1:30 p.m., the fire was in clear sight, cresting a ridge and filling Pingree valley with suffocating smoke. Evacuation was ordered, but some people refused to leave until their grandchildren, who were on the hike, were accounted for.

Fortunately and with blessed timing, Rastall came into view across the valley, leading the Elderhostel group around the fire and to the camp’s parking lot. Cars full of evacuees raced down the road just ahead of the advancing flames.

“The buildings just exploded,” Bertschy says. “It was incredible. I mean they just went up in flames…the heat was so intense.” Bertschy and his staff had no time to pack their belongings and were the last people to leave. In spite of the close call, nobody was injured.


The Hourglass Fire, named after a reservoir west of Pingree, came close to burning down the entire campus. Ultimately the blaze consumed 13 buildings, 1,200 acres of forest, and cost $3.2 million in damages. A total of 190 people were evacuated.

Although the structural toll of the fire was high, the campus was soon rebuilt and conferences and classes resumed. The landscape recovered as well. In fact, throughout the years, the fire has offered exceptional lessons in how the natural world responds to fire.

(Photo at right from 2006: A historic barn at Pingree was spared from the Hourglass fire of 1994.)

“The fire provided a wonderful laboratory for studying the ecology of plant succession and disturbance,” notes Dale Hein, who directed the academic program at Pingree for 10 years.

Story by Paul Miller