Up to 16 inches of snow is falling Tuesday on the massive Cameron Peak fire west of Fort Collins, slowing its growth and offering much-needed respite to crews managing the blaze that tripled in size over the weekend.
It’s not the biggest wildfire currently burning — that title goes to the Pine Gulch fire, which recently became the largest wildfire in recorded state history. Still, the Cameron Peak fire grew from about 34,000 acres and 5% containment on Saturday morning to Tuesday’s measurement of 102,596 acres and 4% containment.
The Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association announced on Twitter Tuesday that it cut power from its Rustic substation at the request of the fire’s incident commanders. Amy Blunck, vice president of member and government relations, noted that while 435 of the co-op’s members — which include households as well as businesses — are affected, the substation’s service area is already part of mandatory evacuations.
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office ordered residents and businesses in the Lady Moon and Red Feather Highlands areas to evacuate Monday evening, but those were downgraded from mandatory to voluntary on Tuesday morning while other evacuations were lifted.
As of Monday, no structures have burned, though crews have not been able to assess some parts of the fire’s footprint.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, where the fire has run over the park’s northern boundary, multiple roads and backcountry areas were closed to the public on Sunday, including Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road. Additional crews have joined to focus specifically on the park and may “directly engage the fire if they can do so safely,” according to Tuesday’s update.
Cameron Peak fire public information officer Paul Bruggink said that this weekend’s rapid expansion was “not a surprise,” given the hot and dry weather, steep terrain and extensive fuels including beetle kill trees. Officials estimate the fire will continue into October, perhaps until Halloween, despite Tuesday’s cold front bringing precipitation to wet down vegetation, raise the relative humidity and slow the fire’s progress for a few days.
“If we had a succession of these heavy snowfalls, then we could put this thing to rest,” Bruggink said, but for the fuels that remain unburned while they’re covered with snow, “that has very real potential to ignite again and go.”
The cold front will give crews a chance to further assess last weekend’s fire activity and recharge to prepare for a warm, dry forecast going into the weekend. Bruggink noted that the storm brings new safety concerns for crews, including wet, snowy roads and wind chill, though air quality will improve as precipitation pulls down the ash that blanketed the Front Range. Wildfire smoke and other forms of air pollution may exacerbate the local impacts of the global coronavirus pandemic.
The Cameron Peak fire started on Aug. 13 near Chambers Lake. Officials suspect it was human-caused and are asking for tips to more specifically determine how it began. The fire has ventured into the footprint of the 2012 High Park fire, which burned more than 87,000 acres and destroyed at least 259 homes, and killed one woman.
Gov. Jared Polis enacted a 30-day statewide open fire ban on Aug. 19, in an effort to prevent more wildfires from starting. The executive order prohibits campfires and fireworks, but camp stoves and home barbecues are permitted. Nearly 85% of wildfires begin as a result of human activity.