‘We are struggling’: US mountain states battle wildfires despite impending winter

Residents in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana are facing evacuations as wildfires fueled by strong winds engulf mountains

Wildfires spread by strong winds tore across Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, rocking the mountain states even as they prepare for winter.

With low temperature forecast at just above freezing this week in Colorado, a fire burning roughly 50 miles from Denver forced evacuations and sent plumes of smoke toward the eastern plains. The area is awaiting its first measurable snowfall, already historically late. Fire weather warnings were issued by the National Weather Service, which forecasted low humidity, high winds and warmer temperatures.

The Kruger Rock fire erupted after strong winds pushed a tree on to a power line. The fire spread quickly through the steep forested area covered in pine and scrub brush. Winds gusting at 45mph (73 km/h) fanned the fire slowly eastward while local fire crews struggled to gain access.

“The terrain where most of the fire was burning made it too dangerous to insert firefighters to battle the fire directly,” officials wrote in an update on Wednesday. “The gusty winds, higher than normal temperatures, and low relative humidity suggested great potential for the fire to grow quickly.”

They relied on air support to suppress the fire, but the conditions proved too extreme and Marc Thor Olsen, a skilled and experienced pilot, was killed on Tuesday night when his fixed-wing plane – which had never before been used to fight fire at night – crashed in the rough terrain.

I spoke with the pilot for a long time before he took off this evening. He was very excited for what he said was a flight that would “make history.” “It’s a pretty cool thing to be a part of,” he told me. Im holding off on using his name or any pictures of him. #9News pic.twitter.com/E84uxC5gz4

— Marc Sallinger (@MarcSallinger) November 17, 2021

“The pilot told ground resources it was turbulent over the fire, conditions were not ideal to make a drop and that he was going to make one more pass and then return to Loveland,” officials said. “Moments later, at approximately 6.37 pm, ground resources heard the plane crash.”

By Thursday morning fire activity had slowed, officials said, and 40% containment was achieved on the 146-acre fire. Mandatory evacuations remained in place in the communities near Rocky Mountain national park.

Fires also forced evacuations in northern Wyoming and south-central Montana, with deputies in some areas going door-to-door warning residents to flee.

The wife of a volunteer firefighter battling a blaze in Wyoming reportedly died after being trapped by the flames while she was trying to evacuate. The Clark fire chief, Nate Hoffert, told reporters on Wednesday that his team was still trying to piece together what happened from clues left behind.

“We believe she was trying to make it out the driveway and ran into a fire front and tried to turn her car around,” Hoffert told KTVQ. “From what I saw, it looks like her car got stuck and she must have tried to get out and try and make it back to her house and try to make it back to a safe zone and got overrun by a fire front.”

The tragedy has affected emergency response teams throughout the area. “It hits incredibly close to home for our department”, Kristie Hoffert, medical chief for the Clark fire district told the Cody Enterprise on Tuesday. “We are struggling.”

In decades past, fire season in the mountainous west wrapped up in the months before the winter storms, typically concluding its siege by August or September. But the climate crisis has delivered hotter days and drier landscapes, with the risks extending deeper into spring and autumn.

“Colorado used to talk about a fire season,” the state’s governor, Jared Polis, said in April. “It’s now a year-round phenomenon.”

Meanwhile, a historic drought and recent heat waves tied to the climate crisis have made wildfires harder and more dangerous to fight. Scientists say the the region has grown much warmer and drier in the past 30 years, which will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

Contributor

Gabrielle Canon and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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