GRANBY, Colorado – As another day of volatile winds and dangerously dry conditions stoked wildfires raging across Colorado’s high country, fire-weary residents who endured months of evacuation warnings and smoky skies wondered Friday, “When will this brutal fire season end?”
“It’s like Armageddon,” said Jacquelyn Evanich, who has seen three massive forest fires burn this week from the window of the motel office she manages here in the lakeside town of Granby. “We’ve been around fires all year, it’s like.
The latest and most destructive of these fires, the East Troublesome Fire, erupted into a 170,000-acre monster this week as high winds pushed it east through ranching communities, lodges on the hillside of mountain and the dry slopes of Tinder in northern Colorado, in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Family members said Friday morning they believed a couple in their 80s had died after taking refuge in a concrete closet in the basement as fire swept through their home in the town of Grand Lake. Officials have yet to publicly announce any deaths from the fire.
Relatives said the couple, Lyle and Marylin Hileman, planned to put out the fire on Wednesday evening in the large yellow house they themselves had built and where the family would gather for the holidays and vacations.
There were flurries of conflicting posts on neighborhood social media groups as to whether the couple had coped as the blaze rose to 100,000 acres that night. Firefighters told the family that they tried to take a bulldozer home to rescue them, but they were blocked by fallen trees and flames. On Friday morning, family members said they had obtained confirmation from local authorities that the Hilemans’ home had been cremated.
“They were never separated, never,” said one of their children, Glenn Hileman. “I don’t think either of them could have thought of leaving this world apart.
Noel Livingston, the incident commander overseeing the blaze, told a press conference on Friday morning that “we have another active day of fire on our hands,” with low humidity levels and much of the state plunged into drought conditions.
As cooler temperatures helped contain the blaze’s growth overnight, forecasters warned the air was still dangerously dry and gusts of wind of up to 60 miles per hour could breathe new life into living with fires later on Friday, creating extreme fire hazards from top to bottom. much of central Colorado.
Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said there were still fires near homes and roads and conditions were changing unpredictably hour by hour, making it difficult to tell residents if their homes had survived or were in danger.
Firefighters are now in a race with nature, trying to limit the spread of the fire and its toll as a winter system is expected to move into the Colorado highlands on Saturday night, with rain turning into heavy snowfall on Sunday. Sunday night temperatures in the Grand Lake area are expected to dip to 7 below.
Evan Direnzo, a meteorologist with the Boulder National Weather Service, where firefighters have now largely contained two fires that erupted last weekend, said even a thick blanket of snow might not be enough to put out the fires.
“They can just simmer in there for a long time,” he said, recalling how the Cameron Peak fire north of Rocky Mountain National Park survived a snowstorm in early September. “People were going out and digging under the snow and there was a fire below. It was just scary, waiting to come back.
As of Friday morning, downtown Granby was largely empty with the northern end of the city under mandatory evacuation and the rest subject to a pre-evacuation notice. Most of the passing light traffic was made up of fire crews or associated personnel.
Michael Gallegos, who lives in the nearby Hot Sulfur Springs springs, was a lonely figure, walking his three dogs through central Granby and marveling at having to endure the smoke and fire at Winter’s Gate, as ski resorts usually snow and prepare to open around Thanksgiving.
“To have a fire of this magnitude now is strange. Very unusual, ”said Mr. Gallegos, who lived in the area for eight years and saw the fire danger increase as summer monsoons did not arrive and fields and trees withered.
“All summer, there would be showers in the forecast, but they never appeared.”
Climatologists and researchers who study forest fires say climate change is leading to longer fire seasons and larger, more destructive fires – a growing danger as development and homes move deeper into forests.
Jeanne Prater leaned on the counter at the Granby Sinclair station, looking next to the 7-Eleven she was supposed to run. However, by mid-morning it was closed and dark because she had no employees. They had evacuated.
For now, Ms. Prater must have considered trying to manage life in the shadow of wildfires at the end of the year.
“It’s weird,” she said, looking at the brown and barren landscape. “It’s usually cold and snowy this time of year.”
Klaus Wolter, a climatologist at the University of Colorado’s Co-operative Environmental Sciences Research Institute, owns a home just west of Jamestown, Colo., About four miles from where the fire of Cal-Wood broke on Saturday.
Mr. Wolter, who arrived in Colorado in 1988, is a veteran of several major wildfires, including the Boulder County Black Tiger Fire in July 1989. At that time, it was the most destructive wildfire. in terms of loss and property damage in Colorado history. burn down 44 houses and structures.
“It started 100 yards from our house,” said Mr. Wolter, who was living in Boulder Canyon at the time. “I was there with my garden hose,” which was far from up to the task. (The wind was blowing away from his house, so he survived).
Before Saturday’s wildfire, Mr Wolter said: ‘I had told people I was surprised at the low fire activity we had east of the [Continental] To divide. In my records, this has been a very unusual year.
“This growing season has been by far the driest over the past 30 years. It was a lot worse than 2002, ”a notorious year in Colorado for wildfires, including the Hayman Fire northwest of Colorado Springs, which burned more than 138,000 acres and 133 homes. “And we had very windy conditions.”
“I guess between the Covid and everything that’s going on, there hasn’t been as much human activity,” added Wolter. “But it was something I dreaded. I was afraid that would happen.
But InsideClimate News editor Michael Kodas, who was briefly driven from his Boulder home last week by smoke from another wildfire, warned that even this weekend’s storm might not be the savior so much hope.
“The forecast snow could help slow the fires. But we once had a storm that dropped six or eight inches over the (nearby) Cameron Peak Fire, and is still burning intensely, ”Mr. Kodas, author of“ Megafire: The Race to Quench a Deadly Outbreak ” of flames, ”said in an email.
Mr Kodas invoked the term “zombie fires,” describing the dynamic in which snow smothers the flames, but the residual embers burn in the winter and rekindle in the spring.
“This happened with a fire that burned down in 2012 and 2013 in part of the same area where the fire is currently burning,” Kodas said.
Jennifer Balch, a fire specialist, said even discussing a snowstorm’s hopes for putting out a wildfire was an unusual conversation.
“I don’t think we’ve ever talked about how much snow we need to put out the fire season, to stop the fire season,” said Ms. Balch, director of the Earth Lab at the University. of Colorado Boulder. “We basically have summer through winter and we skipped fall.”
Ms Balch is not hiding by labeling the wider and more intense fire season in the West as a “clear signal of climate change”, and does not offer hope that this will be reversed without a significant reduction in fossil fuel emissions.
“We’re on the wildfire train and we’re not going down anytime soon,” Ms. Balch said.