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Editor’s Note: This is a developing story. Last updated 8/16/20 at 12:30 p.m.
Horrible air quality, road closures, and evacuations have all been the stuff of headlines recently as two large wildfires—the Pine Gulch fire north of Grand Junction (81,107 acres) and the Grizzly Creek fire near Glenwood Springs (more than 25,000 acres)—are both growing with little containment at this point. The Grizzly Creek fire is also currently threatening Hanging Lake, one of Colorado’s most treasured attractions. Due to a westerly wind direction, even Front Range cities are seeing and smelling the smoke, and I-70 through Glenwood Canyon remains closed.
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Two other large fires are also now burning. The Cameron Peak fire (10,867 acres), ignited west of Fort Collins on Thursday night, followed by the Williams Fork fire (6,000 acres), which broke out in Grand County Friday and has grown significantly over the weekend.
How did we get here? We’ve seen very little rain produced from this summer’s Monsoon season, and over past several months we’ve experienced major drought across the state. As of August 13, 100 percent of Colorado is abnormally dry and 94 percent of the state is experiencing a moderate drought. There are several areas—primarily in southwestern and eastern Colorado—facing extreme and exceptional drought, as well. Coupled with rising temperatures and the effects of climate change, much of Colorado is primed for burning.
Pine Gulch Fire
The Pine Gulch fire started on July 31, presumably by lightning. The fire is burning in remote, rough terrain approximately 18 miles north of Grand Junction. Most of the land that has burned is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property but upwards of 20,000 acres of privately-owned land has burned as well.
Over the past several days, the blaze has grown rapidly to more than 73,000 acres—of which only 7 percent is contained. The blaze has what wildland firefighters describe as “erratic” behavior, meaning high winds are blowing the flames around at a rapid rate. At one point, this fire grew more than 10,000 acres in 24 hours and the smoke has billowed up so quickly it created its own atmospheric, pyrocumulus clouds.
At 73,713 acres as of August 15, the Pine Gulch fire is the fifth-largest fire in Colorado history. Here are the top five:
5) Pine Gulch fire (2020) – 81,000 and growing
4) High Park fire (2012) – 87,250 acres
3) Spring Creek fire (2018) – 108,045 acres
2) West Fork Complex fire (2013) – 109,632 acres
1) Hayman fire (2002) – 138,114 acres
Grizzly Creek Fire
The Grizzly Creek fire started on August 10. The cause is still unknown, but according to the Eagle Country Sheriff’s Office there is speculation that the fire was ignited by a blown tire, sparking rim, or a dragging chain as there were several ignition spots along I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. More than 230 personnel are working on the ground and in the air to fight this wildfire.
The Grizzly Creek fire started on the north side of I-70, but the flames jumped across the interstate and the Colorado River, and now areas on the south side of I-70 are burning, as well. This fire has quickly grown to over 25,000 acres amidst extremely dry and windy conditions. The steep terrain in Glenwood Canyon makes it difficult for crews to battle this fire, and crews are currently working to protect structures in multiple areas including the Shoshone Power Plant, Lookout Mountain, and No Name subdivision.
From Gypsum to Glenwood Springs, I-70 has been shut down in both directions since August 10, and there is no update at this point on when the interstate will open. The approximately 3.5-hour trip from Denver to Grand Junction will now take between five and seven hours, as traffic is being redirected to U.S. 285 and U.S. 50. Both Cottonwood Pass and Independence Pass were closed due to increased traffic as people try to cut some time off of the detour. For continuous updates on road closures, visit Colorado DOT’s Twitter and Facebook or check InciWeb (an incident information system) for the latest.
One of Colorado’s gems—Hanging Lake—was also within the fire’s area. According to David Boyd, the public affairs officer for White River National Forest, the state of Hanging Lake was unknown on Friday, but initial images that emerged later suggest most of the area is unscarred. The Forest Service will know more about the status of Hanging Lake and the surrounding area once the fire calms down.
With hot and dry weather expected to continue, it’s very likely all these fires will grow. The Climate Prediction Center says to expect hotter than normal and drier than normal conditions over all of Colorado through the end of August. There is the hope of isolated thunderstorms to help out in sporadic areas across Colorado, but lightning and windy conditions also come with thunderstorms, so the possibility of afternoon storms worsening the fires is also a concern.
Fire bans are in effect across Colorado, so as you travel this weekend remember to always check fire restrictions and practice fire safety because the state is a tinder box right now.
The Colorado DOT Division of Aeronautics installed cameras on AWOS stations across the state this summer, providing a birds-eye view of these fires. The view from Sunlight Mountain shows smoke from the Grizzly Creek fire filling up the surrounding canyons, and from Walton Peak you can see smoke from the Pine Gulf fire.