A bizarre wildfire has ignited near Estes Park, Colorado, forcing residents to flee at a time of year when they’re usually gearing up for ski lifts to start turning.
The Kruger Rock Fire ignited on Tuesday morning on the southeast fringes of Estes Park in an area known as Hermit Park. The Larimer County emergency management service sent a dire warning to residents in that part of town, telling them to “evaucuate [sic] due to immediate and imminent danger. Evacuate the area immediately and as quickly as possible. Do not delay leaving to gather belongings or make efforts to protect your home or business.” The agency also issued voluntary evacuation orders for areas further south and east along Highway 36, which connects Estes Park with Boulder.
As of 9:45 a.m. local time, the agency said, “Structures are threatened, but no reports of damage at this time.” The fire is estimated at around 75 acres. That’s not anywhere on the scale of this summer’s monster blazes, but its location near Estes Park and the small communities that flank it raises the risk of damage. High winds are also making matters worse by fanning the flames; the airport has recorded wind gusts as high as 22 mph (35 kph) this morning. A news report from CBS4 meteorologist Ashton Altieri said that winds cranked to 45 mph (72 kph) in the area where the fire is burning.
The station also reported that trees are torching and shooting flames more than 50 feet into the sky, an indication that the fire is extremely intense. Early signs broke by CBS4 indicate that the Larimer County Sheriff suspects that powerlines likely ignited the fire. This has become an increasingly common occurrence throughout the West. A number of deadly blazes have ignited in California due to faulty electrical equipment. That’s led utilities to consider burying their power lines, an enormous cost but one worth it given the human toll of fires in recent years.
Climate change has also played a role in altering wildfire season as a whole, though. The timing and location of the fire are both very odd. Estes Park serves as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and sits above 7,000 feet (2,130 meters) in elevation. News video shot from a helicopter shows the Rockies towering above it and covered in a patchwork of snow. Simply put, wildfires in November at these elevations are pretty uncommon.
Yet just last year, firefighters were shocked when the East Troublesome Fire not only burned at high elevations near Estes Park in October; it straight-up marched over the continental divide, which divides rivers that flow to the Atlantic or Gulf and those that flow to the Pacific. That divide, if it’s not clear, is generally extremely high in elevation and not prone to catching on fire at any time of year but especially not in the fall.
The East Troublesome Fire and the Kruger Rock Fire fit a pattern, though, of climate change making fire season stretch longer. An analysis published in 2016 by nonprofit Climate Central found wildfire season across the West is now 105 days longer than it was in the 1970s due to hotter, drier conditions that allow fires to burn deep into what were once the shoulder seasons.
That’s underscored not just by this fire but the conditions in other parts of Colorado and the West throughout the day. The National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings for the Front Range in Colorado as well as parts of Wyoming, New Mexico, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Texas due to high winds, low humidity, and warmer than normal temperatures.
“Conditions will be conducive to the rapid spread of new fires. Probability of ignition will increase,” the agency warned for the Front Range area. That means the Kruger Rock Fire could potentially have company by the afternoon.
Update, 11/16/21, 2:45 p.m.: This post has been updated with new information about the fire behavior and likely source of ignition.