The Cameron Peak Fire surpassed 200,000 acres after high winds drove significant fire growth Friday and Saturday.
Fort Collins Coloradoan
A video and photo showed just how challenging conditions were for firefighters battling the Cameron Peak Fire over the weekend.
Friday through Sunday saw the fire grow by nearly 70,000 acres, adding to the largest wildfire in state history, upward of 50 structures were presumably damaged or destroyed and more than a thousand people evacuated their homes up to the western edges of Fort Collins and Loveland.
Colorado Fire Prevention & Control sent a tweet Sunday showing firefighters bracing against wind with flames in the background. Wind gusts of more than 70 mph were reported, fanning the fire that’s grown to more than 205,000 acres as of Tuesday morning.
A photo taken Saturday behind the Masonville Post Office by nearby resident Lorri Provow showed an eerie smokenado snaking into the hazy air. She said it lasted only a couple of minutes. The phenomenon also goes by many other names, including smoke tornado, firenado, fire whirl or fire devil.
Greg Hansen, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Boulder, said the condition is caused when ash and smoke are quickly uplifted by an intense updraft created over hot spots of a fire.
Lorri Provow of Masonville took this photo of a smokenado behind the Masonville Post Office on Oct. 17, 2020. (Photo: Courtesy of Lorri Provow)
“They are similar to a land spout tornado where existing wind shear causes an updraft with the building of a thunderstorm,” he said. “In this case, the rising comes from the heat of the fire.”
A column of smoke rises from the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado history, as it burns outside Estes Park, Colo. on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. (Photo: Bethany Baker / The Coloradoan )
Hansen said the Cameron Peak Fire has also created pyrocumulus clouds, or fire clouds, which look like big thunderstorm clouds.
These dense clouds are caused by a rising motion due to the fire’s heat that with enough moisture, smoke and debris in the air can create a cloud. He said sometimes the clouds can create dry lightning or in rare cases rain, though he doesn’t believe the Cameron Peak Fire pyrocumulus clouds produced either.
The weather has played a major role in the Cameron Peak Fire with increasing drought conditions gripping Colorado since spring.
A resident looks out from his porch at the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado history, as it burns outside Estes Park, Colo. on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. (Photo: Bethany Baker / The Coloradoan )
Areas of the fire received more than a foot of snow, equating to an inch of liquid moisture, in early September, but the extremely dry conditions and subsequent return to hot, dry, windy conditions did little to slow the fire.
Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist, said the windy conditions firefighters have battled aren’t that unusual for this time of year, but the hot and dry conditions are.
“It’s unusual to have a big fire burning in October,” he said. “But that storm in early September was the only real meaningful precipitation that the fire has had since the beginning of June. Warm days with high winds is not unusual into fall, but we should be getting some regular shots of precipitation and we haven’t seen that.”
Hansen said a stable ridge of high pressure has mostly shielded the fire from storms and helped create persistent northwest winds over the two months the fire has been burning.
He said the forecast calls for light snow Thursday over the fire area with Sunday turning colder with a better chance of snow. However, he said it will take some time for the weather to put out the fire.
“Sunday will slow the fire down, but the forecast snow won’t end the fire entirely,” he said. “I would expect that not to happen until we get into November when the snow sticks around and brings things to an end.”
Cameron Peak Fire: See the latest updates
Cameron Peak Fire top 5 growth dates
Here are the largest single-day growth in acres of the fire that started Aug. 13:
1. Sept. 7: 41,739 acres
2. Oct. 16: 38,720 acres
3. Sept. 6: 24,687 acres
4. Oct. 18: 15,699 acres
5. Oct. 17: 14,966 acres
Source: U.S. Forest Service
Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
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