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'A long haul': Colorado crews brace for weeks of fighting wildfires, as dry conditions persist

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Posted at 12:35 PM, Aug 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-17 17:07:04-04

DENVER — As four large Colorado wildfires continued to grow over the weekend, officials offered a dose of reality: The burning may not stop anytime soon.

"This is going to be a long haul," Ed LeBlanc, the U.S. Forest Service incident commander for the Williams Fork Fire in Grand County, said Sunday in an evening news conference.

LeBlanc estimated that it could take until October to fully contain the Williams Fork Fire, which started Friday and grew to more than 6,000 acres over the weekend.

In Garfield County, White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams cautioned that the Grizzly Creek Fire — which still has Interstate 70 shut down through Glenwood Canyon — "is going to be with us a while."

The largest of the wildfires, the Pine Gulch Fire, north of Grand Junction, has been growing for more than two weeks and was at more than 85,000 acres on Monday. The Cameron Peak Fire in Larimer County grew to more than 13,000 acres over the weekend, and officials said they weren't expecting widespread rain in the next 1-2 weeks.

All four wildfires are facing a similar combination of factors, making them ripe for growth and difficult to fight: Colorado's ongoing drought conditions; steep and rugged terrain where the fires are burning; natural fire fuels, such as pine beetle; and a forecast that includes the possibility of dry thunderstorms — bringing more lightning — and offers little chance of rain.

"We see the forecast as this is going to be a long month, a long possible two months," said LeBlanc, the Williams Fork Fire incident commander

Marty Adell, the Great Basin Team 1 incident commander for the Grizzly Creek Fire, said that plants that typically have a water content inside of them are dry because of the drought conditions. Dead grasses and sage are also fueling the fire in Glenwood Canyon. And while monsoon season was in July, the precipitation from those storms was minimal, Adell said.

Some thunderstorms are in the forecast for the Grizzly Creek Fire this week, but those storms will likely be dry and produce lightning, increasing the fire risk. Thunderstorms also bring a shift in winds that can be problematic, said Adell, who expects "this fire will continue to burn for some time."

Crews, for the most part, haven't been able to directly attack the fires in Colorado, due to the rapid growth and terrain. Instead, crews have focused on preparing structures for protection, known as burnout operations. The burnout operations include removing fuels from the those areas and placing hoses and sprinklers.

The burnout operations sometimes happen miles in advance. For example, the Cameron Peak Fire on Monday morning was still 15 miles west of Red Feather Lakes. But on the west side of that community, and Crystal Lakes, crews were already working to remove fuels alongside the roads, preparing those areas should the fire reach them.

The continued burning of the Grizzly Creek Fire also has the reopening of I-70 uncertain through Glenwood Canyon. Fitzwilliams on Sunday said containing the fire so I-70 can reopen is "a really high priority."

"But before we'll even get to that point," Fitzwilliams said, "the first thing we need to do is make sure there's not active fire. And having been through that canyon quite a few times, it's not safe right now."

Fitzwilliams said over the weekend there was still fire burning alongside the road, in some areas, and falling debris — including rocks and trees that are still on fire — is also a problem along the roadway.

"When we're talking about [the Grizzly Creek Fire] specifically, I did not want to paint a rosy picture and be grandiose," Adell said at a community meeting Sunday. "I wanted to make sure we know what we're looking at."