Colorado wildfire becomes second largest in state history

DENVER (AP) — Colorado's second-largest wildfire in state history was most likely caused by human activity, Gov. Jared Polis said Friday.

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The East Troublesome fire which forced nearby evacuations and closed Rocky Mountain National Park took over 265 square miles (686 square kilometers) — an area larger than the city of Chicago — and was only 5% contained as of Friday afternoon.

The fire reaching the number two spot means that Colorado’s top three largest fires have occurred during the 2020 season.

Polis said the two main reasons for Colorado's increased wildfire risk are due to the state's warmer climate and increased population which means more land utilization.

The biggest takeaway from this devastating and record-breaking wildfire season is a “sense of great humility in the face of nature that we have with regards to these large events,” he said.

Colorado is expecting precipitation to arrive Saturday night into early Sunday with the hopes that snow will tame the fire’s activity and growth.

Noel Livingston, incident commander for the East Troublesome fire, said Friday they were expecting the fire to grow throughout the day as winds posed challenges to firefighters on the ground and aviation efforts to calm the spread from above.

Colorado's largest fire in Cameron Peak has burned over 323 square miles (837 square kilometers) and was 57% contained as of Friday.

Damage assessments from the East Troublesome fire were pending as authorities focused on protecting the evacuated resort town of Grand Lake and fighting the fire itself. The only official indication of damages was given on Thursday by Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin who said there had been “lots of structural loss.”

“We're not withholding information. We're not trying to delay information getting out there. We don't know," Schroetlin said at a fire briefing Friday. “I've been through many of these areas up in there and things change every pasture that I go.”

The sheriff could not confirm any missing people as a result of the fires but Schroetlin said that the list is very small and fluctuates with many people who are found in various shelters or at other family member's homes.

Gov. Jared Polis activated Colorado’s National Guard to assist in any search and rescue operations, conduct aerial reconnaissance of the state’s fires and conduct damage assessment.

Polis said more than 6,500 homes had been evacuated and that officials were working to secure hotel rooms for evacuees from Grand County and the resort town of Estes Park, which was evacuated as a precaution on Thursday. The national park itself was closed as fire encroached on the west and to the north.

Peter Comer who was working a seasonal job at the YMCA in Estes Park said he and some friends weren't expecting to evacuate until the alert was issued.

“It was pretty hectic 'cause we left in about 20 minutes. We just kind of had to throw our stuff together and pack up and leave," he said.

Comer said evacuating because of a wildfire was surreal.

“This is the first time I've ever had to do anything like this; it's been a learning experience," said Comer, who is originally from a small city outside of Des Moines, Iowa. He said the traffic was so bad they were stuck downtown for two hours.

Although the plan is to return to Estes Park, for now, Comer is staying at a YMCA camp in Grant until they have permission to return.

East Troublesome is the state’s priority fire and has 725 personnel assigned to fight the flames, Livingston said.

The cold, damp weather east of the Continental Divide helped firefighters battling the Cameron Peak blaze, the state’s largest recorded wildfire at 323 square miles (517 square kilometers), west of Fort Collins, as well as two smaller fires in Boulder County to the south. Crews had contained nearly 60% of the Cameron Peak fire Friday.

The Mullen Fire, which started in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest and crept into northern Colorado, showed little activity with crews tamping hot spots. It had charred nearly 280 square miles (450 square kilometers) as of Friday.

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Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.