The two blazes have the potential to merge, depending on conditions Friday and Saturday. So far, the East Troublesome Fire has forced the evacuations of Granby, Grand Lake and, to the east of Rocky Mountain National Park, the community of Estes Park. An unknown number of properties have been damaged or destroyed, and at least five people are missing.
Noel Livingston, who leads the team of firefighters tackling this blaze as incident commander, said in a news briefing that he expects “another active fire day” Friday, with areas east of the Rockies socked in by clouds, cold air and easterly winds, preventing fire spread there until late in the day.
Meanwhile, areas to the west, including throughout Rocky Mountain National Park and the Grand Lake area, are in a different fire weather environment, with sunshine, relatively warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds.
Livingston said Thursday that the more than 100,000 acres of fire growth that occurred late Wednesday and into Thursday morning is “really unheard of for a fire in this part of the world in timber.”
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 hallmarks of climate change.
It’s largely burning at an elevation of 9,000 feet at a time of year when snow should be falling. The fire is raging during a severe drought, aggravated by record heat, through stands of trees killed or weakened by a 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. The mountain bark beetle is such a pest. 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.
Firefighters and national park rangers expressed astonishment Thursday afternoon when the blaze sent embers across the continental divide, much of which is treeless because of the high altitude, and ignited a spot fire on the other side that grew as it spread up Mount Wuh within the national park.
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 before but is an extremely rare occurrence. As the fire established itself on the east side of the divide, the national park was evacuated, along with Estes Park.
The evacuation of Estes Park, home to about 7,000 and known as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, was chaotic, with traffic backups that lasted hours as the sky glowed an eerie dark red, turning the bright afternoon into night.
The dystopian scene was one that’s become common recently as record large fires have hit Australia, California and now Colorado.
Winds up to 70 mph concern forecasters, residents in harm’s way
The fire’s next move amounts to a battle between weather features, as frigid air from Canada blasts its way southward during the next few days, with possibly as much as a foot of snow forecast to begin falling Saturday night in the region where the fire is burning.
Before the snow begins, however, winds are forecast to howl at speeds above 50 mph in the high terrain, blowing from west to east Friday night into Saturday morning, a direction that would advance the blaze toward more heavily populated areas in the foothills, including Estes Park.
It may also challenge fire containment lines being built Friday to stop the fire from advancing into Grand Lake and Granby, west of the national park.
Red flag warnings for “critical” fire weather risk take effect from Friday noon through Saturday afternoon because of the strong winds and relatively low humidity expected across higher elevations, including in the fire zones.
Colder air with higher relative humidity and snowfall is expected to work its way from north to south, potentially squelching the flames and forcing it toward the surface and out of the upper canopy of trees, where it spreads the fastest. But how far the fire moves in the extreme winds up to that point will determine how much damage is done.
It will be a race between two extremes: fast-moving flames and heavy snow and frigid temperatures. The fate of some communities may rest on the precise timing between the two.
“Wind gusts after midnight may reach 50 mph from mid slope to ridge top,” the National Weather Service forecast office in Boulder said in an online forecast discussion. “On Saturday, high winds will continue with peak wind gusts over 60 mph expected on the higher mountain slopes, with gusts around 40 mph expected in the mountain valleys and foothills. Fire danger and potential for rapid fire spread will increase with this bout of wind.”
Colorado’s three largest wildfires on record have occurred this year. “I’ve used the word unprecedented before and I’m starting to run out of adjectives to describe what’s happening this fire season,” Nauslar said.
California is also experiencing a record wildfire season. More than 4.1 million acres have burned, and more than 9,200 homes and other structures have been destroyed since Jan. 1. California wildfires have killed 31 people this year, with more high winds in the forecast for the weekend into early next week from the same weather system expected to bring snow to Colorado. These winds would spread any new blazes.