Gov. Polis visits two Western Slope wildfires as two others ignite, spread rapidly

Grizzly Creek ‘top fire priority in the entire nation’ as I-70 remains closed

By: - August 14, 2020 1:02 pm

An air tanker battles the Grizzly Creek Fire near Glenwood Springs on Aug. 13 (Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team/BLM)

Gov. Jared Polis visited with local officials and firefighting crews at command centers near two wildfires on Colorado’s Western Slope on Friday morning, as two other blazes grew rapidly in Larimer and Grand counties.

Speaking to reporters in Eagle, a few miles east of the 14,000-acre Grizzly Creek Fire, Polis said the blaze was the “top fire priority in the entire nation right now.” Since igniting on Aug. 10, the fire has shut down a 25-mile stretch of Interstate 70 east of Glenwood Springs and forced evacuations of Lookout Mountain, No Name, Bair Ranch and other areas.

The Grizzly Creek Fire is at 0% containment and more than doubled in size on Thursday as it “experienced rapid and erratic growth” due to dry conditions, high winds and steep terrain, according to federal fire officials. Polis said that I-70 will likely remain closed for at least two or three more days.

“Literally, this fire is right on I-70 in several places,” Polis said. “The highway cannot reopen until about 24 hours after the fire moves away.”

Polis’s visit to the Western Slope came as another major wildfire, officially named the Cameron Peak Fire, continued to grow rapidly near Chambers Lake, about 40 miles west of Fort Collins. The new blaze had burned an estimated 2,179 acres as of Friday morning, and prompted evacuations across a large swath of Poudre Canyon and the Laramie River valley in the hours after it was first spotted.

“You will need to travel north into Wyoming for safety reasons,” the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office told residents in an evacuation order. “Do not delay leaving to gather belongings or make efforts to protect your home or business.”

Smoke from three major Colorado wildfires seen via satellite imagery on Aug. 14 (Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere/NOAA)

Officials have warned Front Range residents not to travel into the Poudre Canyon and Red Feather Lakes area and said Thursday that they “expect the evacuation area to grow.”

A fourth blaze, the Williams Fork Fire, was reported near the Williams Fork Reservoir southwest of Hot Sulphur Springs shortly after noon on Friday. Authorities issued evacuation orders at two campgrounds in the area.

Real-time satellite imagery from the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University appeared to show the Williams Fork Fire growing rapidly on Friday afternoon, making it visible alongside the three other major fires burning across the state. “Heavy air support has been ordered,” the Grand County Office of Emergency Management tweeted.

The causes of the Grizzly Creek, Cameron Peak and Williams Fork fires remain officially undetermined, though the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office on Aug. 12 acknowledged that officials suspect the Grizzly Creek Fire was started by a “blown tire, sparking rim or dragging chain” from a vehicle on the interstate.

4th largest fire in state history

Meanwhile, the Pine Gulch Fire, which has burned in the vast, sparsely-populated Roan Cliffs area north of Grand Junction since being ignited by a lightning strike on July 31, continues to climb the ranks of Colorado’s largest wildfires on record.

At 73,381 acres, Pine Gulch is now the fourth largest individual fire in state history. All of Colorado’s 10 largest blazes by acreage have occurred since 2002, during a 20-year period of chronic drought conditions that scientists attribute largely to higher regional temperatures caused by climate change.

No deaths or destruction of major structures had been caused by any of the three fires as of Friday morning. But many areas in their paths remain under threat, including the Shoshone Generating Station, a hydroelectric power plant just east of the Grizzly Creek Fire. An updated map of the fire’s burn area released Friday morning also showed that it had entered the popular Hanging Lake recreation area.

The fires also continue to affect air quality in mountain communities and along the Front Range, as their smoke plumes blanket much of the state in a thick layer of haze and raise the potential for increased formation of secondary pollutants like ozone.

An image of Denver captured on Aug. 14 by state air-quality regulators as part of visibility monitoring efforts. (CDPHE)

“The greatest air quality impacts are expected to be for locations within the Denver Metro area, as well as northward along the I-25 corridor to Fort Collins, including areas west of I-25 within the lower foothills on Friday,” the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in an advisory.

As dry conditions and high winds are expected to lead to continued “extreme fire behavior” across much of the state in the coming days, Polis on Friday warned Coloradans to observe warnings and follow safety protocols in order to help prevent yet another major fire from igniting.

“All of Colorado is under drought conditions right now, so we’re at great, heightened risk in many areas,” Polis said. “I want to make sure that’s a clear message to campers and others, to really limit activities that could cause fires as we go about our daily lives.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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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.