Pine Gulch Fire poised to crack state’s top 10 largest wildfires

Western Slope acres burn amid hot, dry conditions

By: - August 11, 2020 12:23 pm

Satellite imagery captured on August 11 shows smoke from Western Slope wildfires drifting over Colorado. (Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere/NOAA)

Two major wildfires burning on the Western Slope have forced evacuations, shut down Colorado’s main east-west interstate and are poised to blanket the Front Range in a thick layer of haze.

Dramatic images captured Monday showed the early stages of a fire burning along Interstate 70 near Glenwood Springs. Named the Grizzly Creek Fire — initially it was known as the 120 Fire — the blaze grew to 1,400 acres within hours of ignition; its cause is still unknown, according to the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, a federal wildfire response group based in Lakewood.

As of noon on Tuesday, I-70 remained closed in both directions between Glenwood Springs and Gypsum, and there was no estimated time of reopening, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, the Pine Gulch Fire, located roughly 15 miles north of Grand Junction, has burned about 36,500 acres and, at only 7% containment, is expected to continue to grow, officials said Tuesday. Evacuation orders for residents along several roads in the surrounding Roan Cliffs area have been issued.

11th largest wildfire

Unusually hot, dry weather has persisted across much of Colorado since late spring, with 100% of the state currently under an official drought classification, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The recurring drought conditions that have gripped the Southwest since 2000 make up the most severe dry period to affect the region since the 16th century, and are part of a long-term, potentially irreversible drying trend driven in large part by rising global temperatures.

At 36,500 acres and growing, the Pine Gulch Fire is already the 11th largest wildfire by acreage in Colorado history. Nineteen of the state’s 20 largest wildfires on record have occurred since 2000, according to a 2018 Denver Post analysis.

Significant amounts of smoke from the two fires are expected to affect residents along the Front Range, which is already experiencing high levels of air pollution in the peak summer months for ozone formation. Air-quality indexes for ozone have reached unhealthy levels on four of the last eight days in the Denver metro area, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.

Wildfire smoke can pose health risks both through the direct emission of hazardous “primary pollutants,” like fine particulate matter, and through the formation of “secondary pollutants” like ozone, according to a 2019 report from the California Department of Public Health.

“Although major health impacts from this smoke are not anticipated … at this time, unusually sensitive people should consider reducing prolonged or heavy exertion through at least Tuesday afternoon,” the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in an advisory issued Tuesday morning.

In July, Larry Helmerick, a fire information coordinator with the RMACC, told Newsline in an interview that the volatile swing between wet and dry weather earlier this year had created conditions that were ripe for large fires, with early vegetation growth eventually drying out and providing the “fine fuels” necessary for rapid fire growth.

“This year, we had a lot of early moisture,” Helmerick said. “And now those fine fuels are on the ground, they’re dry, they’re receptive to burn.”

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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Chase Woodruff is a senior reporter for Colorado Newsline. His beats include the environment, money in politics, and the economy.