The fate of Estes Park is now a race between fire and ice, as a snowstorm is due to hit Saturday night and last into Sunday, and is likely to halt the fire’s spread. In anticipation of continued fire growth before then, however, eastern areas of Estes Park have been added to mandatory evacuation orders — the western side of town had been evacuated Thursday — and firefighters were taking steps to defend the town.
Some reports show the fire may have moved significantly closer to Estes Park overnight — perhaps as close as one mile, with firefighters calling in more resources Saturday. In a morning video briefing Saturday, Paul Delmerico, operations section chief on the fire, said the fire is “just west” of the Bear Lake area in Estes Park.
The high winds are preventing fire suppression aircraft from flying, and firefighters are using satellite imagery to locate the blaze. He cited “Very dynamic extreme conditions that we’re working with” as a reason for concern.
“We’ve got a heck of a day ahead of us,” Delmerico said. “We’re going to do everything we can with our folks to try to deflect the fire from Estes Park.”
Winds in Estes Park on Saturday morning were gusting to about 50 mph out of the west, with temperatures that are expected to climb into the 60s with extremely low relative humidity. Even stronger winds are in the vicinity of the fire at higher altitudes.
Red flag warnings are in effect for the Rockies as low humidity combines with high winds to create “critical” fire weather conditions, the second-most severe category on the fire risk scale. The Cameron Peak blaze, located just a few miles from the East Troublesome fire and the state’s largest on record, is also expanding Saturday, satellite heat detections show. There is even a possibility the two fires could merge before the cold front settles the blazes Saturday night.
At higher elevations where the fire is especially active, snowfall amounts later this weekend are forecast to exceed a foot, which will lead to the odd juxtaposition of a flame-filled surface and snow-covered trees and ground areas.
“Imagine a foot of snow over those hot fires!” wrote the National Weather Service forecast office in Denver in a forecast discussion posted Saturday morning. By Monday, temperatures in the fire area are expected to be in the single digits to below zero Fahrenheit, though it’s not clear if this will be enough to completely extinguish the blaze.
The dual threats from fire and snow point to the rarity of high altitude blazes at this time of year in Colorado, when winter typically settles in. No fire on record in Colorado that has started this late in the season has become nearly as large, putting the blaze in uncharted territory and showing all the signs of climate change.
The fire has been so severe it jumped the continental divide, a span of two miles that contains mainly rocky terrain. The fire grew an astonishing 140,000 acres in size between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday, and stood at 188,389 acres as of Saturday afternoon.
According to Nick Nauslar, a predictive services meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, having a wildfire jump the divide has happened in other fires before but is an extremely rare occurrence.
The fire is raging during a severe drought, aggravated by record heat, through stands of trees killed or weakened by years of a bark beetle infestation. The harmful beetles are a phenomena linked to climate change that is occurring across vast stretches of the West and into Canada.
As temperatures have increased in Colorado, it has given once-scarce pests, formerly held in check by extremely cold winter temperatures, an opportunity to spread and damage or destroy trees. Studies have shown that in some ecosystems, these dead or weakened trees can accelerate blazes, while in others they may actually slow down some wildfires.
In 2020, the Colorado fire season has been especially severe and has stretched longer than in modern memory. The three largest fires on record in Colorado have all occurred this year, with the top two, East Troublesome and the Cameron Peak Fire, still burning. The entire state is mired in drought conditions for the first time since 2013, with many areas in severe drought.
Long-term climate change trends may be playing a significant role, scientists say. According to a 2016 study, human-caused climate change nearly doubled the area burned in western states, mainly by making the region hotter and drier.