‘Extremely active and fast-moving’: Western Slope wildfires continue to grow

Hanging Lake, Shoshone hydroelectric plant threatened by Grizzly Creek blaze

By: - August 12, 2020 1:55 pm

A view of the Pine Gulch Fire on Aug. 11, 2020. (Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team/BLM)

A pair of major wildfires on Colorado’s Western Slope have spread rapidly in recent days and are expected to continue to grow on Wednesday amid extremely hot, dry and windy conditions.

Located about 50 miles apart, the Pine Gulch Fire and the Grizzly Creek Fire have both been supercharged by the severe drought conditions that have gripped Colorado this summer, officials say, and rough terrain has made them difficult for firefighters to suppress.

“It’s a combination of everything coming together,” said Larry Helmerick, fire information coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. “We have dry, receptive fuels, low (relative humidity) all over western Colorado and Wyoming. Low humidity, hot temperatures, wind conditions and dry fuels — all those combine to give us extreme fire behavior, and if there’s fire in the area, it’s going to be extreme, like what we’re witnessing on Grizzly Creek and Pine Gulch.”

The Pine Gulch Fire, located about 15 miles north of Grand Junction and caused by a lightning strike on July 31, had grown to an estimated 51,455 acres as of Wednesday morning, according to the Bureau of Land Management. At least 658 personnel are battling the blaze, which has forced evacuations along several roads in the sparsely-populated Roan Cliffs area.

Already, the Pine Gulch Fire ranks as the 7th largest wildfire in Colorado history, and the blaze is currently only estimated to be 7% contained. It has roughly doubled in size in just 48 hours amid hot, dry weather and high winds — and those conditions aren’t expected to improve anytime soon.

“Conditions over the Pine Gulch Fire are not expected to improve on Wednesday,” BLM officials wrote in an update. “Critically dry fuels, severe drought conditions, critical fire weather creating extreme fire behavior are creating a high resistance to control.”

Satellite imagery of the growth of the Pine Gulch Fire on August 11. (Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere/NOAA)

The blaze is currently spreading primarily along its northeastern and northwestern flanks, officials said — away from more heavily populated areas near Grand Junction. BLM land accounts for a majority of the burned acreages, though more than 10,000 acres of privately-owned land have been affected in Mesa and Garfield Counties.

I-70 remains closed

While smaller, the Grizzly Creek Fire has proved more disruptive than Pine Gulch since it ignited along Interstate 70 near Glenwood Springs on Aug. 10. Two days later, Colorado’s primary east-west interstate remains closed in both directions between Glenwood Springs and Gypsum, with no timetable for reopening.

The community of No Name, located along the fire’s western edge, was evacuated Tuesday. As it grew rapidly throughout the afternoon, the fire jumped I-70 and the Colorado River, forcing additional evacuation orders to be issued for the Lookout Mountain and Coulter Creek areas.

“We had a couple of spot fires come from the north side over to the south side,” said Beau Kidd, of the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, a federal interagency firefighting group. “Fuels and slope lines, with a little bit of wind, made a rapid movement up the south side of the river.”

Like its neighbor to the west, the Grizzly Creek Fire was expected to grow rapidly, given hot, dry and windy conditions on Wednesday.

“The fire is expected to be extremely active and fast-moving,” officials wrote in a press release.

Firefighters on Wednesday planned to focus their efforts on assessing and protecting homes and other structures that may be in the fire’s path in the more densely populated areas to the south.

“(We’ll be) getting a good handle on what’s out there, what protection measures need to be taken to protect those structures as the fire continues to progress south, and possibly further east,” Kidd said.

A map shows the area burned by the Grizzly Creek Fire near Glenwood Springs as of Aug. 12. (Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team/BLM)

Water restrictions have been put in place in Glenwood Springs after the city shut off a water source from No Name Creek due to firefighting operations.

“This is out of an abundance of caution to protect the water supply from fire retardant being used on the Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon,” city officials said in a press release. “The City has notified large water users in the area and restricted consumption and residents are encouraged to conserve water used for irrigation.”

Other areas of concern for firefighters include the Hanging Lake area, the popular recreation spot located just a few miles northeast of the fire, as well as the Shoshone Generating Station, a hydroelectric power plant not far upriver.

“The concern in here is that it’s very steep, rugged terrain, as most people who have driven through there know,” Kidd said. “Not a lot of safe places to put firefighters in there, so our efforts are going to be focused on strictly the highway corridor and … primarily along the area around the power plant to protect that value.”

Severe drought conditions

After a relatively wet spring and summer led to a mild fire season in 2019, severe drought conditions have returned to Colorado in recent months, leading to elevated wildfire risks across much of the state.

Nineteen of the 20 largest fires in Colorado history have occurred since 2000, during a two-decade-long Southwestern drought driven in large part by rising temperatures caused by climate change. The Western Slope has warmed by an average of more than four degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels, and long-term reductions in stream flows along the Colorado River and other river basins across the state have led to a dry period more severe than any the region has experienced since the 16th century.

Gov. Jared Polis issued a statement on the wildfires Wednesday, urging Coloradans to be alert and follow fire safety protocols.

“During this pandemic, firefighters and first responders are playing a critical role in keeping our state safe, and we want to remind everyone to please do your part in preventing human-caused wildfires,” Polis said. “The Division of Fire Prevention and Control, along with our public safety partners, have been proactively working to ensure our state is prepared for this year’s wildfire season — including for challenges presented by COVID-19.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment warned residents along the Front Range Wednesday that smoke from the two fires is likely to continue to negatively impact air quality in and around the Denver metro area.

“Due to the influence of wildfire smoke transported into the Front Range, Ozone and Fine Particulate concentrations could both reach the Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups category at times through Wednesday afternoon across the northern Colorado Front Range region,” a CDPHE advisory said. “The greatest air quality impacts are expected to be in locations within the Denver Metro area, as well as northward along the I-25 corridor to Longmont, including areas west of I-25 within the lower foothills.”

Federal firefighting officials said they “plan for the worst, and hope for the best,” and encouraged residents near the Pine Gulch and Grizzly Creek fires to do the same.

“Be on guard,” Helmerick said. “Make sure you get a plan in place, where you get your essentials — medications, your important papers and things like that — and have definite plans for yourself, your pets, your livestock, whatever you have, to be sure that you can get out safely, and your prized possessions can go with you.”

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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.