Hot, Smoke and Snow, pt 2–Troublesome Times

About 6 weeks ago, I wrote about the Cameron Peak fire and the effects of its smoke and ash many miles away, where I live. Since then, there have been some changes. That fire has continued burning and is now the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history, at 206,977 acres this morning (see the InciWeb site for all manner of fire details). It’s coming under control, now at 57% containment.

But wait, there’s more. Lots more.

In Boulder county, where I live, we had two fires start this past weekend. Calwood started Saturday. Most wildfire names come from their geography, and this one started near Calwood. Calwood is an outdoor education center, and many local school students have a week of “outdoor ed” there each year at this treasured local resource. The good news is that the education center didn’t burn. The not so good news is that more than 10,000 acres did burn, and a number of homes, I believe 24, were completely destroyed. More good news–no people are known to have died or sustained serious injury. Wildlife, forest, there was serious injury. This fire is now 55% contained, and evacuation orders have been lifted, so that people who have homes remaining (the majority of those evacuated) can return home. Dumpsters are being provided for emptying refrigerator and freezer contents. Gotta be nasty after a week without power. At least everyone is accustomed to wearing masks.

The view from Boulder of the Calwood fire the night after it started.

A day later, the Lefthand Canyon Fire started. Only a few miles away from Calwood as the crow flies, but in a different drainage. This fire spread less quickly, and while a great many people living in tiny mountain towns had to evacuate out of caution (hot dry winds and beetle-killed forests and steep terrain and a drought are a terrible combination), this fire burned “only” 460 acres. This fire is now 100% contained, and with some luck and the forecast cooler and wetter weather, there is hope that it will not cause more damage.

While all this was going on in my immediate vicinity, there was another fire, the East Troublesome, (named for nearby Troublesome creek) which had started October 14, just north of Hot Sulfur Springs. It was burning some, causing local concern and inconvenience, until, a week later, it literally was blown up. Its been hot and dry and windy (I believe I’ve mentioned drought conditions) and a week after the fire had started, the hot dry winds took a 30,000 acre fire and literally overnight it grew to 125,000 acres, forcing towns to evacuate under terrifying conditions in the middle of the night. If you’ve heard of Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in the US, residents of Grand Lake were fleeing the fire over Trail Ridge into Estes Park in the middle of the night. Trail Ridge is a beautiful scenic drive, but it’s certainly not one I would want to do in darkness with a wildfire at my back.

Unfortunately, the fire took much the same path, and some of it jumped the Continental Divide, setting up another locus of fire on the Eastern side of the divide. Most of the terrain in this area is steep and rocky coniferous forest, very difficult to access, and very easy for a wind-driven fire to spread rapidly, as Wednesday night illustrated. This meant that the town of Estes Park is now threatened by this fire. The Cameron Peak Fire has been north of Estes, and the nearby hamlet of Glen Haven had already been evacuated for a week owing to Cameron. At noon yesterday, Estes Park got the notification that part of the town was now under a mandatory evacuation order.

So now to personal parts of this tale. My sister Deb is a long time resident of Estes Park. She’s about to retire from her job running the EP branch of the Larimer county health department, and her husband taught math at EP high for many years. She’s got an arthritic thumb, and yesterday she had surgery on it down in Boulder. She and her husband had to take the long way to the surgery center (road closures due to Calwood fire), but they made it, her surgery went well, and afterwards they headed back “up the mountain”. Less than an hour after arriving home came the evacuation order. So they had to quickly pack up essentials and hard to replace items and head out of town. This time they went to my brother’s house in Greeley, where they have a lot of extra space. Owing to the gridlock getting out of Estes along with all their friends and neighbors, the 50 mile trip took more than 3 hours. They made it safe and sound, and were welcomed with a comfortable bed and tasty supper.

The line of traffic leaving Estes Park at 2pm yesterday. Dark as night from the smoke.

As of this morning, the eastern part of the fire is holding fairly steady, Deb and family are hunkered down in Greeley for the time being, and it looks like both her home and our family cabin which is a few miles south of Estes Park are all still standing and not under imminent threat. The East Troublesome fire, which was at 30,000 acres Wednesday afternoon, is now at 170,000 acres and 5 percent contained, and is the states second largest wildfire ever.

Biggest wildfires ever, late fire season, most acreage ever burned in the state. Yes, this is climate change. We had a record number of days this past summer with temperatures above 90 degrees F (32C). Most of the state is in a drought. We’re semi-arid anyway, and with a little more heat, the snow melted out early, leaving the ground even more parched than usual, and the late summer monsoons didn’t show. A perfect setup for forest fires. The cause of these fires has not yet been determined, but they are likely human caused, as there wasn’t any lightning noted. Human caused can mean many things, from arson, to a campfire gone wrong, a cigarette misplaced, a spark of any sort, including from a gun, and this is hunting season. We may get an answer and we may not. If you are interested and want to read more on the statistics of our fires and how much change there has been in the last 20 years, this links to an excellent article.

Good news, the weather is cooler, we had frost this morning. As I was eating breakfast, I noticed a few white things drifting down. My first thought was “more ash from the fires”. They were snowflakes, but what an illustration of how quickly our perspective and assumptions can change. Its cooler today. Unfortunately, tomorrow is predicted to be warm and windy, more “fire weather” And then, maybe a real snowstorm on Sunday. Let us pray.

I’ve been writing about Colorado, as its my home and what I know. There are many other places in the western US having a bad fire season, notably California, Oregon and Washington. These are indeed Troublesome times, on so many levels. And at the same time, there is goodness and support, with neighbors helping each other, reaching out to someone who needs something. We need more pulling together, whether to put out fires or figure out how to live in community once again.

13 thoughts on “Hot, Smoke and Snow, pt 2–Troublesome Times

  1. I’m a native Coloradan but I lived in Southern California for 30 years before retiring and moving home. I experienced all this in 2003 with the Cedar Fire, then the biggest fire in California history. It’s a trauma from which no one recovers, being evacuated for a length of time, and not knowing what happened to one’s house, friends, everything. I’m deeply saddened and a little angered by the fact that the US now has a “fire season.” It was not the case when I was young, and not even in the 80s and 90s in Southern California. I feel that we have done this ourselves and it breaks my heart. This is such a heart-felt and well-written piece. Thank you.

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    1. Indeed. We did have forest fires when I was a kid, but it general they were MUCH smaller (the Sun article I linked to stated that the vast majority of them were 10K acres or less) I remember going to the jeffco airport with my dad to watch the “slurry bombers” take off and land during firefighting efforts but, it wasn’t a “season” or siege the way it is now.

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  2. Oh, Steph — I’m so sorry to read this post. I’ve lived in Southern California for most of my life, and might have written a post with similar words! Although I’ve never had to evacuate because of fires, my mother was evacuated twice during the summer two years before she died — fortunately she was able to go to a grandson’s home, where they took good care of her. The fear and emotions of wildfires come back every time I read a post like yours — we’ve been under “red flag warnings” most of the last three or four months, and the level of alert has been very high, with dry winds and triple digit heat (we don’t usually see thunder and lightning in Southern California, though even that occasionally shows up)! I’m glad you are safe, and hope your sister’s home and the cabin are still standing and not directly threatened. This is an excellent post — please keep us posted with any updates as they occur!

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. I hope things settle down on your side of things. The fire grew overnight owing to high winds, and the threat to Estes Park has increased, as well as our cabin. We shall see. It is scary, and a very different feeling threat than floods or blizzards. Strange times, indeed.

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  3. I hadn’t realised that the fires were still burning there, Steph. In Australia, the only US news we hear is about covid, national politics and protests. I had hoped that the weather was now more favourable to contain your fires. I really feel for you and your fellow citizens dealing with all that smoke and the threat of imminent evacuation. If it is any consolation, my garden soon recovered from its fiery dormancy once the Australian season petered out. We are now experiencing a period of above average rainfall on the east coast of Australia due to the La Nina weather pattern here. This pattern is expected to persist through our summer. In contrast, I understand that the reverse is true on your side of the Pacific. Hopefully your spring will be a much better one.
    Do take care. You are right that it is kindness and support that builds the resilience of communities to pull through these ordeals. Fingers crossed that your sister and her family’s home escape the brunt of the fires.

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    1. Thanks, Tracy. All encouragement is welcome. This too shall pass, and its strange all round. La Nina here usually means more snow in the mountains once winter arrives, but thus far its about a month late. With luck it will show up this evening. Glad your are recovering from your fires.

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  4. I do not envy anyone living in the fire zone. We’ve had a very long drought here and it still hasn’t rained enough to make up the missing water — about 9 inches — but we’ve gotten a little bit, so at least I’m not a worried about THIS area going up in flames. We live in a heavily treed environment, so when it stops raining for a couple of months, those of us who live in the woods AND use well for water start to get twitchy. So far, we’ve been lucky but I sure hope we get some serious rain soon. It’s going to take a LOT of rain to make up for the lack of rain during the four months of summer.

    Stay safe, keep healthy, and may the fires finally end.

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    1. Thanks, Marilyn. Moisture for all who need it. I heard from a friend who relocated to FL from CO. He’s had 18 inches of rain this month, more than we’ve had all year. time to reshuffle, methinks.

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  5. So very sorry to hear this. I had no idea that the fires were still going strong in Colorado! Everything else in the news seems to overshadow this. I would not have expected “fire season” to move into October! I have never wished this on anyone, but I do wish you an abundance of snow!! Thank you for writing this. I think the world needs as much awareness as we can get to our changing climate and human impact.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. With so much going on, its so easy to lose track of stuff, and to stay remotely sane in our daily lives, we have to put some things in the background. The fire has grown overnight due to more high winds, and evacuation zones have increased. Snow is predicted tonight into tomorrow, so I am hoping that the many firefighters on site will be able to hold the line before natures assist arrives. This October fire season is highly unusual. Of course that descriptor fits for most of this year. wild times. Be well yourself.

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  6. How awful to read of this here in Australia. We have recovered from our terrible fires of last summer, on the surface only. So many people still out of their homes, and over one BILLION animals lost! What are the politicians doing do the world?? Why does no one make a strong choice for renewables and environmental care?! Drives me crazy, while we all suffer, including all the developing countries’ populations… What a terrible mess 😦 But I’m glad your family is safe. G

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