The fate of Estes Park is now a race between fire and ice, as a snowstorm is expected to hit Saturday night and last until Sunday, and is likely to stop the fire from spreading. In anticipation of further growth in fires before that date, however, the eastern areas of Estes Park were added to mandatory evacuation orders – the city’s west side had been evacuated on Thursday – and firefighters were taking measures to defend the city.
Some reports show the blaze may have moved significantly closer to Estes Park overnight – perhaps as close to a mile as firefighters called for more resources on Saturday. In a Saturday morning video briefing, Paul Delmerico, chief of the fire operations section, said the blaze was “just west” of the Bear Lake area in Estes Park.
High winds prevent firefighting planes from flying and firefighters are using satellite imagery to locate the blaze. He cited the “very dynamic extreme conditions we work with” as a cause for concern.
“We have a hell of a day ahead of us,” Delmerico said. “We’re going to do everything we can with our people to try to deflect the Estes Park fire.”
Winds at Estes Park on Saturday morning were gusting about 50 mph from the west, with temperatures expected to rise into the 1960s with extremely low relative humidity. Even stronger winds are found near the fire at higher altitudes.
Red flag warnings are in effect for the Rockies as low humidity combines with high winds to create “critical” fire weather, the second most severe category on the fire hazard scale. The Cameron Peak fire, located just a few miles from the East Troublesome blaze and the largest on record in the state, is also developing on Saturday, according to satellite heat detections. It is even possible that the two fires merge before the cold front settles the flames on Saturday night.
At higher elevations where the fire is particularly active, snowfall later this weekend is expected to exceed a foot, resulting in the eerie juxtaposition of a flaming surface and snow-covered trees and ground surfaces. .
“Imagine a foot of snow on those hot fires!” The National Weather Service’s forecast office in Denver wrote in a discussion of the forecast released Saturday morning. By Monday, temperatures in the fire zone are expected to be below zero single-digit Fahrenheit, although it is not clear whether that will be enough to extinguish the blaze completely.
The dual threat of fire and snow indicates the rarity of high altitude flames at this time of year in Colorado, when winter typically sets in. No recorded fire in Colorado that started so late in the season has grown nearly as large, putting the blaze into uncharted territory and showing all the signs of climate change.
The fire was so severe that it crossed the Continental Divide, a two mile expanse that contains mostly rocky terrain. The blaze increased to an astonishing 140,000 acres between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday.
According to Nick Nauslar, a meteorologist with the Predictive Services at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, after a wildfire the ditch has occurred in other fires before, but it is an extremely rare event.
Most of the fire burns at an elevation of 9,000 feet at a time of year when snow is expected. The fire rages in a severe drought, made worse by record heat, through stands of trees killed or weakened by a year of bark beetle infestation. Pest beetles are a climate change phenomenon that is occurring across large swathes of the West and in Canada.
As temperatures rose in Colorado, this gave once rare pests, once controlled by extremely cold winter temperatures, the opportunity to spread and damage or destroy trees. Studies have shown that in some ecosystems these dead or weakened trees can speed up fires, while in others they can actually slow down some forest fires.
In 2020, the Colorado fire season has been particularly severe and has extended longer than in modern memory. The three biggest fires on record in Colorado have all occurred this year, with the first two, East Troublesome and Cameron Peak Fire, still on fire.