A fast-moving wildfire nearly destroyed the Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site in southeast Colorado Tuesday night.
Flames from the Bent’s Fort Fire, one of several fires currently burning in the region amid dry and windy weather, got within a few feet of the walls of the fort in La Junta. Firefighters battled the blaze for around 30 minutes to keep it from igniting the wooden beams that support the two-story adobe structure, said Brad Davidson, the city’s fire chief.
“I told them to do whatever it took to protect that fort,” Davidson said. “It has a lot of history and it’s a landmark.”
The fire ignited around 10 a.m. on Tuesday near the eastern edge of the 800-acre park, smoldering for several hours before the wind picked up around 8 p.m. and pushed it west.
“It just took off in minutes,” said Alicia Lafever, communications manager for the fort.
When she saw smoke, Lafever and other park staff corralled a herd of animals that live on the park grounds inside the fort walls, Lafever said. The group included several horses, donkeys, cats, peacocks and goats.
But staff had to leave a lone ox named Clark outside in order to evacuate the property themselves.
Shortly after they left, flames jumped over a wetland area along the Arkansas River, which runs through the middle of the park.
“That’s what made it very hard for the firefighters to fight,” Lafever said. “They couldn’t get in there because they could get stuck. So they had to just let it go. They couldn’t get it.”
The fire raced toward the fort, where a group of a dozen firefighters sprayed it with water hoses for 30 minutes until the winds died down, Davidson, the fire chief, said.
“Once the fire front went past, we were able to take on the hot spots and secure the area,” he said. “We made sure there was no damage to the building.”
The fort and surrounding land is a national historic site registered with the National Park Service. It features a life-size replica of a fort that operated as a key fur trading post along the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-1800’s.
The site now serves as a living history museum with two-dozen rooms, featuring live actors who recreate stories and scenes from the fort’s heyday.
“It’s very important to the Santa Fe Trail history so we’re grateful it’s still here,” Lafever said. “We were right on the border with Mexico at the time it was running, so it was very important for trade purposes.”
Even though the main fort was left unscathed on Tuesday, the fire burned more than 75% of the park’s grass and wetlands, Lafever said. The burn scar continued to smolder Wednesday. Staff cleaned off a layer of ash on the fort’s adobe walls and evaluated the park’s animals, including Clark, the ox, who was unharmed.
The park will remain closed to visitors while officials assess the damage and determine a reopening plan.
“It will take a while to heal, especially the Cottonwood trees,” Lafever said. “It concerns me because it seems like fires in the area are becoming more frequent.”
Containment work on the Bent’s Fort Fire continued Wednesday. No human or animal injuries were reported, but officials said it had burned several uninhabited buildings.
Several miles to the east, the Fort Lyon Fire destroyed two homes on Tuesday and continued to burn Wednesday, officials said. Evacuation orders for the community of Fort Lyon have been lifted for the time being.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife reported that 75% of the Oxbow State Wildlife Area east of Las Animas had been blackened, and the agency closed the John Martin Reservoir State Wildlife Area as a precaution.
Officials caution that fire conditions remain dangerous throughout the region.
“My biggest concern right now is the erratic winds that we’re having,” Davidson said. “Hopefully the fire doesn't kick back up and jump one of our containment lines.”
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