With clouds of dark smoke billowing overhead, wildfire evacuees fleeing Thursday afternoon down Highway 34 from Estes Park parted to allow four UCHealth LifeLine ambulances space as they hurried – emergency lights flashing – toward Estes Park Health hospital.
As the fast-moving East Troublesome Fire burned in Rocky Mountain National Park west of the mountain town, officials had ordered mandatory evacuations of the national park and most of the town west of Lake Estes. The mandatory evacuation zone included the hospital.
Estes Park Health and local emergency crews had been planning for this possibility, and when the evacuation order came, the hospital called UCHealth’s DocLine transfer center to request that three of their patients be admitted at UCHealth hospitals. Dr. Michael Osborn, a hospitalist at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital, immediately accepted the request.
Judson Smith, program director for UCHealth LifeLine said the ambulances made the trip from Loveland to Estes Park in 40 minutes, having been called at roughly 1:15 p.m.
“It was probably one of the quickest responses we’ve done, because they were in immediate need to get these patients out,” he said, adding that the smoke darkened the sky.
When they arrived, they found fire crews working to keep ash out of the hospital. “They had been spraying the hospital and areas around the hospital with water cannons. I’ve never seen it pitch dark, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, in my life.”
The thick clouds of smoke and strong winds prohibited the use of helicopters for the evacuations. The ambulance crews were able to safely transport the patients to Fort Collins by 3:30 p.m. The evacuation operations were a team effort, with Estes Park EMS and Weld County-based Med Evac also transporting patients from the hospital and two nursing homes.
The UCHealth effort involved 17 UCHealth employees, with dispatchers providing essential support.
“They all did awesome,” Smith said, adding that for weeks Shannon Wicker, PVH EMS emergency preparedness and life safety coordinator, has been preparing the team for this type of scenario.
Separately, PVH EMS has been deploying ambulances to support firefighters on both the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires, the No. 2 and No. 1 largest wildfires in recorded Colorado history.
Several UCHealth clinics in Estes Park are also within the mandatory evacuation zone and are now temporarily closed.