East Troublesome Fire’s ‘unprecedented’ blowup a sign of Colorado’s grim climate future

Grand County blaze grew by 150,000 acres in just two days, forcing thousands to evacuate

East Troublesome Fire officials issued a preevacuation order for the town of Granby on Oct. 22, 2020. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Christopher Joyner has spent years working for the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies that fight wildfires on Colorado’s public lands. He worked the Mullen Fire, which burned 176,000 acres on the Colorado-Wyoming border last month, and the Pine Gulch Fire, which briefly became the largest wildfire in state history in the summer. But nothing prepared him or any of the hundreds of firefighters battling the East Troublesome Fire for what happened this week, when the blaze suddenly roared eastwards through Grand County, burning more acres in less than 48 hours than the Pine Gulch Fire had in four weeks.

“I’ve never seen a fire like this,” Joyner said Thursday. “We’ve never had conditions like this in this part of Colorado.”

In a matter of hours, the East Troublesome Fire, ignited by unknown causes on Oct. 14, improbably became the most fearsome blaze in Colorado’s record-shattering 2020 fire season. Pyrocumulonimbus clouds created by its Wednesday night blowup towered 40,000 feet into the air, so massive and energetic that they generated their own lightning. The fire sent residents first in Grand Lake, and then in Estes Park and Granby, fleeing its path along winding, gridlocked country roads. It ripped through Colorado’s most treasured national park, leapt the Continental Divide and cloaked much of western Larimer County in an apocalyptic dark-orange glow.

Nearly 10,000 people live in areas currently under evacuation orders. While the fire hadn’t yet entered Grand Lake town limits, officials said Thursday, many outlying areas are within the fire’s perimeter and have experienced “lots of structure loss.” As of Friday morning, at least five people were unaccounted for.

“We plan for the worst,” Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said at a press conference Thursday. “This is the worst of the worst of the worst.”

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Other elected officials from Grand Lake and Grand County, some of them visibly shaken, read short, prepared statements, urging residents to follow evacuation orders and other instructions from emergency-services personnel. Some evacuees who had gathered for the briefing, held in a middle school gymnasium in Granby, pleaded for updates on property losses, airborne firefighting resources and containment efforts in individual subdivisions.

Fire managers, who said that their top priority was assisting first responders with life-saving evacuations, searched for words to describe the events that were unfolding: “Unprecedented.” “Unheard of.” “Amazing.” “Catastrophic.”

A map of the perimeter of the East Troublesome Fire on Oct. 23, 2020. (U.S. Forest Service)

The fire’s 25-mile eastward run between midday Wednesday and Thursday evening expanded its burn area from 19,086 acres to over 170,000 acres, making it the third Colorado wildfire in the past three months to top the 138,114 acres burned by the 2002 Hayman Fire, which had stood as the state’s largest fire on record until this year.

The explosive growth, driven by high winds, followed similar blowups in recent months by the Pine Gulch Fire and the Cameron Peak Fire, which is burning just to the north in Larimer County and — for now — holds the record for biggest Colorado fire at over 200,000 acres in size. But fire managers have rarely, if ever, seen a run like the one that East Troublesome made this week. Not in the northern Colorado Rockies. Not at a pace of 6,000 acres an hour. Not in late October.

“We’re supposed to have snow on the ground up here,” Joyner said. “It’s an incredibly unusual circumstance. It’s hard to even know what to say.”

In blitzing through Grand Lake into the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park, the fire scorched the headwaters of the Colorado River, the vital western drainage basin that provides drinking water to over 36 million people across the American Southwest. It’s a symbolic blow to the wellspring of a region that’s undergoing a profound, potentially catastrophic transformation as it’s lashed relentlessly by ever hotter, ever drier weather.

Unprecedented in speed and scope, the East Troublesome blowup has torn through forests turned into tinderboxes by a cascade of destabilizing climate impacts. It follows one of the area’s driest late-summer periods on record, in the 21st year of a drought worse than any that the Southwest has experienced in half a millennium. It was fueled in large part, fire officials said, by dead timber — millions of lodgepole pines left ghostly and desiccated by a decades-long bark beetle epidemic.

Trees damaged by by bark-beetle infestation near Berthoud Pass, Oct. 22, 2020. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Both the drought and the beetle-killed forests, scientists say, are being driven largely by temperatures that, in many parts of Colorado, have warmed by an average of nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. And at the root of this chain reaction of ecological disasters: rising atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide — emitted mostly through the combustion of fossil fuels — that have reached their highest level in more than three million years, since before human beings walked the earth.

Rising temperatures are estimated to have doubled the area burned by wildland fires in the U.S. between 1984 and 2015, and the number of acres burned over the past century is “more closely related to climate factors than to fire suppression, local fire management, or other non-climate factors,” researchers wrote in a 2018 federal report.

“We are seeing drier, hotter conditions in our state,” Gov. Jared Polis said during a Thursday briefing on the East Troublesome Fire and other fires burning across the state. “We are experiencing a statewide drought that leads to climate conditions that are ideal for the rapid growth of forest fires.”

“(We need) to reverse this trend before it becomes even harder, in Colorado, to prevent the kind of fire season that this year we might call historic, but with some of the scenarios for climate change, without successful intervention, would become more the norm in the future,” he added.

For now, residents of Estes Park and Grand County are filling up hotels and evacuation centers as far away as Black Hawk and Westminster. Officials said Friday that evacuations throughout the area will remain in place for the foreseeable future, with many residents still waiting to find out whether their homes are still standing.

The East Troublesome Fire, seen here looking north along County Road 61, had burned more than 170,000 acres in Grand County as of Oct. 22, 2020. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

“The last few days have been absolutely some of the toughest days that I’ve had,” said Grand County Manager Kate McIntire, who is one of the thousands of people forced to evacuate due to the fire. McIntire didn’t yet know the status of her home, she said Friday.

“I know people are scared,” Schroetlin said. “I spoke with a gentleman at my last meeting, and I could see the tears and the fear in his eyes. I can’t give him the answers until I actually know the answers myself.”

More than 730 firefighting personnel had been assigned to the East Troublesome Fire as of Friday morning, said incident commander Noel Livingston. Polis on Wednesday activated the Colorado National Guard to assist with evacuation and firefighting efforts.

The cold, wet weather that arrived on the eastern side of the Continental Divide on Thursday night is helping to prevent the fire from spreading further towards Estes Park, officials say. Granby, which is separated from the fire’s southern flank by the Colorado River and a valley filled mostly by lighter-burning sagebrush, is likely “defensible” in the event that winds pushed the fire in the town’s direction, Livingston said.

But despite cooler, calmer conditions, the fire continues to rage around Grand Lake and the southwestern corner of Rocky Mountain National Park, with additional growth a possibility, even as the potential for wetter weather increases this weekend.

“We’re not out of the woods in the Grand Lake area, or anywhere along (U.S. 34) coming down to Lake Granby,” Livingston said. “We’re going to be facing aggressive fire behavior, and engaging will be difficult in places.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Kate McIntire.

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