SLADE — When the wildfire that did so much damage to the Red River Gorge was discovered just after midnight on a late October weekend, 39 cars were parked at nearby trail heads.
Some Forest Service employees started fighting the fire, others spent 12 hours looking for campers and getting them out of woods that soon would be aflame.
The cause of the fire: One of the more than 200 campfires that had been lit despite a ban put in place weeks earlier.
"People equated the consequence of ignoring the campfire ban as a $75 (later raised to $500) fine; they didn't realize they could be threatening other people's lives," said E.J. Bunzendahl, an assistant fire management officer for the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Luckily, no one was hurt. But an estimated 1,650 acres of some of the prettiest country in Kentucky burned.
Seventy-five firefighters (66 of them from a dozen other states) were involved, as were 30 supervisors, law enforcement officers and others. Three fire engines were used, and a helicopter was called in to start a backfire to limit the spread of the main fire.
An entire section of the gorge was closed at a time of year when thousands arrive to see fall foliage. The popular Tunnel Ridge Road also was closed, as was part of Ky. 77 from Nada Tunnel to the Martin's Fork parking area.
Now that the fire is contained and some hazardous trees have been removed, Ky. 77, a portion of Tunnel Ridge Road and most trails in the Gray's Arch area have reopened.
But fires still aren't allowed outside fire pits in established campgrounds in the Cumberland Ranger District on the northern end of the Daniel Boone National Forest. In addition to the gorge, that means no fires for hunters who will flock to the Cave Run Lake area this weekend for the opening of modern-gun hunting season.
Officials are still determining the extent of damage from the wildfire and scratching their heads trying to figure out how to convince visitors that a campfire ban means no campfires.
Wildfires in Kentucky often are little more than leaf fires, with short flames that scorch the bottoms of tree trunks. They may damage trees, making them unsuitable for lumber, but usually don't kill them.
This particular fire, which was still smouldering in spots earlier this week, was much worse.
The campfire that three people were seen running away from on Rush Ridge burned relatively slowly down into a valley, then climbed Auxier Ridge with a vengeance.
As fire climbs a ridge, it dries material above it, increasing the intensity. In some places, flames were 40 feet high.
Extremely dry conditions helped the fire. So did history: A vast 1999 fire had left some dead trees standing. Shortly after that fire, most of the pines in the area were killed by an unusually large infestation of southern pine beetles. All that was just more fuel for the fire.
Many living trees, including tall oaks and short young white pines, were destroyed. Others that were weakened are being felled by chain saw crews so they won't fall on hikers and campers when the Auxier Ridge area is re-opened.
Dispersed camping is allowed in the gorge. Campsites may be set up anywhere that is 300 feet from a trail or 100 feet from a cliff. Because of that, Bunzendahl said, it will be impossible to remove all the potentially dangerous trees and limbs. Besides, she noted, standing snags, as dead trees are known, provide shelter for bats and other woodland creatures.
Newly fallen brown leaves already are covering some of the blackened landscape along Auxier Ridge Trail. But the sides of the trail are littered with fallen trees. There also are many "stump holes," places where a tree stump has burned below the ground and left a hole a couple of feet deep.
When the area reopens, hikers and campers will be encouraged to stay on trails so they don't accidently step in a stump hole, Bunzendahl said. The holes could be especially treacherous in the spring, she said, when a new flush of greenery hides them.
The Red River Gorge has thousands of archaeological sites, many of which are rock shelters where Native Americans lived. Some of those places might have been damaged by the fire.
There also are a number of rare, threatened or endangered species that might have suffered. A prime example is the white-haired goldenrod, a pretty little plant that grows nowhere else in the world. It is found in some of the places that the fire scorched.
Another fire-related problem: Invasive species, already a problem in the gorge, might move in and take advantage of the vegetation gaps left by the fire.
Miscanthus sinensis is one of the worst and most likely intruders. The ornamental grass, which also goes by the alias Chinese silverplume, was planted at Natural Bridge State Resort Park in the 1930s, but its wind-blown seeds escaped. It now grows in many places across the state.
It not only crowds out locals, it also forms dense mats of dried leaves that can turn the mildest wildfire into an inferno.
A burned-area emergency response team already was trying to figure out ways to limit or remedy the damage caused by the fire, Bunzendahl said. The team might recommend keeping a closer lookout for invasives, she said, or creating water bars along trails to prevent erosion when the region eventually gets a heavy rain.
For Forest Service officials, the most disappointing part of the extensive fire damage is that it could have been avoided. It was clear in early October that the area was ripe for a fire that could do extensive damage. As in Lexington, rainfall had virtually stopped at the end of July.
The ground was dry. The duff layer, the area under leaves where rotted leaves are turning back into soil, was even drier.
On Oct. 7, rangers found a campfire that campers had tried to put out, pouring what water they had left on the ashes.
The duff layer kept burning, though, and blackened the ground above for several feet until it reached an area where it ignited leaves and started a wildfire.
On Oct. 8, a Friday, a ban on campfires was declared. Signs were put up, and places that sell permits required for overnight camping helped spread the word.
Forest Service law enforcement officials handed out 133 written warnings, said Marie Walker, a spokeswoman for the agency. Then they wrote 102 notices of violations, each of which carried a $75 fine.
In some cases, Walker said, a group of campers would simply shrug and split the $75 cost. Officers tried fining each camper $75, but that didn't seem to help.
Finally, on Oct. 26, they got permission to raise the fine to $500. Since then, only four illegal campfires have been found.
In addition to the fine, violators risk six months in jail and can be forced to pay for the cost of suppressing the fire.
During a campfire ban in 2008, for example, a group of college buddies fled their campsite after one of them threw a firecracker off a ridge and started a wildfire. The thrower was ordered to pay $27,500. Five of his friends paid $6,700 each.