Why The Colorado Wildfires Feel Like a Season Without End

GRANBY, Colo. — As another day of volatile winds and dangerously dry conditions stoked wildfires raging across Colorado’s high country, fire-weary residents who have endured months of evacuation warnings and smoky skies asked themselves on Friday: “When will this brutal fire season ever end?”

“It’s like Armageddon,” said Jacquelyn Evanich, who watched three huge wildfires burning this week from the office window of the motel she manages here in the lakeside town of Granby. “We’ve been around fires all year, it feels like.”

The latest and most destructive of those blazes, the East Troublesome Fire, erupted into a 170,000-acre monster this week as lashing winds pushed it east through ranching communities, mountainside lodges and tinder-dry slopes in Northern Colorado, into Rocky Mountain National Park.

On Friday morning, family members said they believed a couple in their 80s had died after taking refuge in a basement concrete closet as the fire swept through their home in the town of Grand Lake. Officials have not yet publicly announced any deaths from the fire.

Relatives said the couple, Lyle and Marylin Hileman, had planned to ride out the fire on Wednesday night in the big yellow house that they had built themselves, and where family would gather for holidays and vacations.

There were flurries of conflicting posts on neighborhood social media groups about whether the couple had made it out as the fire grew by 100,000 acres that night. Firefighters told the family they had tried to take a bulldozer up to the house to rescue them, but were blocked by fallen trees and flames. On Friday morning, family members said they had gotten confirmation from local authorities that the Hilemans’ house had been incinerated.

“They’ve never been apart, ever,” said one of their children, Glenn Hileman. “I don’t think either of them could’ve had an idea of leaving this world apart.”

Noel Livingston, the incident commander overseeing the fire, said in a Friday morning news conference that “we’ve got another active fire day on our hands,” with humidity levels low and much of the state plunged in drought conditions.

While colder temperatures helped to contain the fire’s growth overnight, forecasters warned that the air was still dangerously dry, and that wind gusts of up to 60 miles per hour could breathe new life into the fires later on Friday, creating extreme fire dangers up and down a huge part of central Colorado.

Sheriff Brett Schroetlin of Grand County said that there were still fires burning near homes and roads and that conditions were changing unpredictably, hour by hour, making it difficult to tell residents whether their homes had survived or were in danger.

Firefighters are now in a race with nature, trying to limit the fire’s spread and its toll as a wintry system is expected to move into Colorado’s high country Saturday night with rain changing to heavy snow by Sunday. Sunday night’s temperatures in the Grand Lake area are forecast to plunge to 7 below.

Evan Direnzo, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Boulder, where firefighters have now largely contained two fires that erupted this past weekend, said even a thick quilt of snow might not be enough to quench the fires.

“They can just simmer under there for a long time,” he said, recalling how the Cameron Peak Fire burning north of Rocky Mountain National Park had survived an early-September blizzard. “People were going out and digging under the snow and there was fire under it. It was just chilling, waiting to come back.”

On Friday morning, downtown Granby was largely empty with the northern end of the town under mandatory evacuation and the rest subject to a pre-evacuation notice. Most of the light traffic passing through consisted of firefighting teams or associated personnel.

Michael Gallegos, who lives in neighboring Hot Sulphur Springs, was a lone figure, walking his three dogs through the center of Granby and marveling at having to endure smoke and fire at the doorstep of winter, when ski resorts are usually making snow and preparing to open around Thanksgiving.

“To have a fire of this magnitude, now, it’s strange. Very unusual,” said Mr. Gallegos, who has lived in the area for eight years and watched the fire danger swell as summertime monsoons failed to arrive and the fields and trees dried out.

“All summer long, there would be showers in the forecast, but it never showed up.”

Climate scientists and researchers who study wildfires say climate change is driving longer fire seasons and larger, more destructive blazes — a growing danger as development and homes push farther into forests.

Jeanne Prater leaned on the counter at the Granby Sinclair station, gazing next door to the 7-Eleven that she was supposed to be managing. However, by midmorning, it was locked up and dark because she had no employees. They had evacuated.

Ms. Prater was left, for the moment, to muse about trying to manage life in the shadow of wildfires this late in the year.

“It’s bizarre,” she said, gazing out at the browned and arid landscape. “It’s usually cold and snowy at this time of year.”

Klaus Wolter, a climatologist at the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, owns a home just west of Jamestown, Colo., about four miles from where the Cal-Wood Fire erupted on Saturday.

Mr. Wolter, who came to Colorado in 1988, is a veteran of several major wildfires, including Boulder County’s Black Tiger Fire of July 1989. At that time, it was the most destructive wildfire in terms of property loss and damage in Colorado history, torching 44 homes and structures.

“That started 100 yards from our house,” said Mr. Wolter, who at that time was living in Boulder Canyon. “I was out there with my garden hose,” which was not nearly up to the task. (The wind was blowing away from his house, so it survived).

Before Saturday’s wildfire, Mr. Wolter said, “I had been commenting to people that I was surprised how little fire activity we have had east of the [Continental] Divide. In my records, this year has been very unusual.

“In the last 30 years, this has been the driest growing season, by far. It was far worse than 2002,” a notorious year in Colorado for wildfires, including the Hayman Fire northwest of Colorado Springs, which scorched more than 138,000 acres and 133 homes. “And we have been having very windy conditions.”

“I guess, between the Covid and everything else going on, there hasn’t been as much human activity,” Mr. Wolter added. “But this was something I was dreading. I was dreading that this would happen.”

But Michael Kodas, senior editor of InsideClimate News, who was forced briefly out of his Boulder home last week by smoke from a separate wildfire, cautioned that even this weekend’s storm might not be the savior so many hope.

“The snow that’s predicted could help slow down the fires. But we’ve already had a storm that dropped six or eight inches on the (nearby) Cameron Peak Fire, and that’s still burning intensely,” Mr. Kodas, the author of “Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame,” said in an email.

Mr. Kodas invoked the term “zombie fires,” describing the dynamic in which snow smothers flames, but residual embers burn on through the winter and reignite in the spring.

“That happened with a fire that burned in 2012 and 2013 in some of the same area where the East Troublesome Fire is currently burning,” Mr. Kodas said.

Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist, said even discussing hopes for a snowstorm to put down a forest fire is an unusual conversation to be having.

“I don’t think we have ever talked about, ‘What is the amount of snow that we need to put out the fire season, to quelch the fire season,’” said Ms. Balch, director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We essentially have summer running into winter and we’ve skipped the fall.”

Ms. Balch does not hedge in labeling the expanded and more intense Western fire season as a “clear signal of climate change,” and does not offer hope of that being reversed without a significant reduction in fossil fuel emissions.

“We’re on the wildfire train and we’re not getting off anytime soon,” Ms. Balch said.

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