CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — More strong wind Friday made the biggest wildfire in Colorado history even worse, keeping firefighting aircraft on the ground and forcing evacuations along a highway leading to Rocky Mountain National Park.
It is unlikely aircraft will fly Saturday due to another expected day of strong winds.
“Extreme fire behavior and rapid spread rates are anticipated to continue through the night and throughout the day on Saturday due to winds up to 70 mph and exceptionally dry fuels” said the Type I Rocky Mountain Area incident command team Friday night, Oct. 16.
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The Cameron Peak Fire has burned 173,536 acres (260-square-miles) and is 57% contained, according to estimates shared in a virtual community update Friday night.
On Wednesday, the fire spread 17 miles to the east off the southeast flank and swelled 40 square miles in dense, rugged terrain, becoming the biggest fire in Colorado’s history fire set Colorado’s size record after strong winds Tuesday night and Wednesday morning caused it to grow by more than (104 square kilometers).
Firefighters since have focused on protecting homes in and around Drake and Glen Haven, an area with hundreds of cabins perched on heavily forested slopes and ridges.
Structure triage assessments have been completed in the Fall River corridor, Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, Estes Valley, Glen Haven and Storm Mountain areas and surrounding communities.
“Surge” crews, including around 200 engines, directed to the area since Wednesday’s growth spent much of Friday on structure protection in Storm Mountain, Cedar Park, and The Retreat areas.
People along U.S. 34 in the scenic Big Thompson Canyon — an area ravaged by flooding that washed the road out in 2013 — were in imminent danger and should get out immediately, Larimer County authorities said.
The growing fire has also forced firefighters north and east of Rocky Mountain National Park to reposition for safety.
“We are seeing very active fire behavior right now and firefighters are adjusting accordingly,” fire information officer Michelle Kelly said.
“Tomorrow’s going to be a challenging day,” said Paul DeMerco, operations sections chief. “These are unprecedented conditions…I wish I had better news.
“You’ve heard about the weather and difficult conditions firefighters are facing,” said Incident Commander Dan Dallas. “You can expect some difficult circumstances through the night and into the morning.”
Despite Wednesday’s spread, overall containment percentage held steady even ticked up Friday night due to increased containment on the northwest perimeter. It is 57% contained, according to estimates shared in a virtual community update Friday night.The fire spread little during calm, cooler weather Thursday.
U.S. 34 was closed to non-emergency traffic, cutting off a major route to Estes Park, population 6,400, as well as the national park.
A voluntary evacuation zone extended as far as the Carter Lake area 8 miles (13 kilometers) west of Loveland for people who needed extra time and were advised not to wait for a dire emergency to leave.
More voluntary evacuations came late Friday night for County Road 29 to the west side of County Road 27 north of Highway 34.
The fire sent thick smoke into Fort Collins and prompted evacuations all the way to Horsetooth Reservoir on the city’s western edge. Partly because of the reservoir, the city of 168,000 wasn’t considered at risk, though schools for a time kept children indoors amid alerts for poor air quality.
The Cameron Peak Fire started in mid-August in the high country 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Fort Collins and has persisted despite getting over 1 foot (30 centimeters) of snow on Labor Day. It was over 50% contained before this week’s flare-ups.
Twenty-five miles (40 kilometers) to the north of the Cameron Peak Fire, firefighters were also watching a windy forecast at the Mullen Fire on the Colorado-Wyoming line. The fire has grown little this week despite the recent wind.