Four major wildfires have burned an area of more than 130,000 acres across Colorado in recent weeks, causing evacuations, highway closures and potentially hazardous levels of smoke and other forms of air pollution in many parts of the state.
Amid hot, dry weather that has left 100% of the state under an official drought classification for the first time in seven years, the 2020 wildfire season is on track to be among the most destructive in state history — and forecasters say there’s little relief in sight.
“August represents the peak of fire season for the West and Above Normal significant fire potential is expected,” the National Interagency Fire Center wrote in its monthly update. “The North American Monsoon is forecast to remain intermittent … Given the dry fuels, any lightning will likely result in increased fire activity and above normal significant large fire potential into September.”
Colorado’s changing climate has increased the risk of dangerous wildfires. Rising concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the earth’s atmosphere — mostly the result of fossil-fuel combustion — have caused many parts of the state, especially on the Western Slope, to warm by an average of more than four degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. All of Colorado’s 20 largest wildfires on record have occurred since 2002, during a 20-year “hot drought” that scientists say is driven largely by higher temperatures.
In 2017, the Colorado State Forest Service reported that more than 2.9 million Coloradans lived in the “wildland-urban interface” — areas at risk of being impacted by wildfires. Fire safety experts urge residents of such zones to familiarize themselves with the “Ready, Set, Go” system of precautions.
Pine Gulch Fire
Ignited by a lightning strike on July 31, the Pine Gulch Fire has burned an estimated 85,407 acres in the sparsely-populated Roan Cliffs area, about 15 miles north of Grand Junction. It’s the fourth largest individual wildfire in Colorado history.
Fire officials said that Monday was a “crucial day” in their efforts to combat the blaze.
“Today presents an opportunity to successfully influence the duration of the Pine Gulch Fire,” the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team wrote in its Aug. 17 update. “Crews will be working swiftly to seize control and suppression opportunities. Residents should fully expect to see smoke columns established in several areas of the fire today — multiple columns may be visible at once.”
Residences along Roan Creek Road, Clear Creek Road, Carr Creek Road and Brush Creek Road are under mandatory evacuation orders.
Grizzly Creek Fire
A 25-mile stretch of Interstate 70 remains closed as the Grizzly Creek Fire, which has grown to an estimated 25,007 acres in size, continues to burn on both sides of the highway and the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon.
The Grizzly Creek Fire’s cause remains officially undetermined, but the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office said on Aug. 12 that it was likely caused by “blown tire, sparking rim or dragging chain”
“Direct attack of the fire has been difficult due to the rugged and steep terrain,” fire officials said Monday.
Operations have continued to focus on protecting structures in the No Name and Bair Ranch areas, as well as key infrastructure like the Shoshone Generating Station, a hydroelectric power plant near the confluence of the Colorado River and Grizzly Creek.
Officials said on Aug. 14 that Hanging Lake, a popular recreation area just east of Glenwood Springs, had been spared from the worst impacts of the fire.
“Weather for the next two days is a concern, with the potential for dry thunderstorms,” officials said. “Hot and dry conditions with winds out of the north east and are expected to continue.”
Officials in Garfield and Eagle counties have ordered evacuations in areas including Coffee Pot Springs, No Name, Lookout Mountain, Homestead Estates, Bair Ranch, High Aspen Ranch, Coulter Creek, Cottonwood Pass, Spring Valley Ranch, Coulter Creek Estates and Buck Point Drive. Several areas in Dotsero, including Two Rivers Village, Dotsero Mobile Home Park, Coffee Pot Road, Sweetwater Road and Derby Mesa Loop, are under pre-evacuation orders as the fire continues to move east.
Road closures include Interstate 70 between Glenwood Springs and Gypsum, Cottonwood Pass, Hagerman Pass Road and Crooked Creek Pass. Independence Pass is open only to passenger vehicles; no vehicles exceeding 35 feet in length are allowed and the Colorado Department of Transportation is warning travelers to expect delays of up to two hours.
“(Interstate 70) cannot reopen until about 24 hours after the fire moves away,” Gov. Jared Polis said during a visit to the Grizzly Creek incident command center in Eagle on Aug. 14.
Cameron Peak Fire
Ignited near Chambers Lake on Aug. 13, the Cameron Peak Fire has grown to more than 13,305 acres and forced evacuations across a large swath of western Larimer County. Its cause is still under investigation.
The fire is currently 0% contained, but fire officials say that its western flank is effectively blocked by the Medicine Bow Mountains, and operations are currently focused on building containment lines to the north and near the Red Feather Lakes area to the east. Firefighters intend for Highway 14 to form a southern containment line, though several spot fires crossed it on Sunday, said Beau Kidd, an operations section chief with the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, during a Monday video briefing.
“The overall strategy on the Cameron Peak Fire is full suppression,” Kidd said. “Granted, we’re not going right on the fire’s edge, but we are looking for complete perimeter control on this fire.”
Areas under mandatory evacuation orders include the Laramie River valley, Spencer Heights, Kinikinik, Rustic and Long Draw Reservoir. Dozens of roads west of the Red Feather Lakes area remain closed.
Nearly 300 firefighting personnel are currently assigned to the blaze, and officials expected hazardous conditions to continue throughout the day Monday.
“Obviously there’s a lot of dead fuels out there, the weather is extreme, the fire behavior is very active,” Kidd said.
Williams Fork Fire
The Williams Fork Fire west of Fraser and Winter Park has grown to 6,345 acres since igniting on Aug. 14. Officials said Sunday that the fire has been determined to be human-caused, but did not provide further information.
“Fire behavior calmed somewhat Sunday afternoon with a shift in wind direction pushing from the north,” officials said. “Retardant lines applied by air resources were also effective in helping slow the fire’s spread.”
Campgrounds and other areas within the Arapaho National Forest were evacuated in the hours after the fire’s ignition. As of Monday, several areas east of Fraser along County Road 50 and south of Hot Sulphur Springs along County Road 3 are under pre-evacuation notices, according to the Grand County Office of Emergency Management.
During an Aug. 16 video briefing, Ed LeBlanc, an incident commander with the U.S. Forest Service, urged residents to be on alert, and said that the area under threat from the fire could grow rapidly if conditions worsen.
“This could take a single day of bad fire weather,” LeBlanc said. “We have all this fire line that is unchecked right now, so one bad day of southwest winds, (and) it could reach Fraser and Winter Park in one day.”
This post will be updated.