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The Cameron Peak fire smoke column as seen Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, from Boyd Lake. (Handout)

The Cameron Peak fire exploded east toward Fort Collins on Wednesday, becoming the largest recorded blaze in Colorado history and prompting new evacuations as it sent a massive plume of smoke into the air over northern Colorado. 

Officials say the fire, which has burned more than 164,000 acres, expanded into the area just west of Horsetooth Reservoir. Crews on Wednesday afternoon were scrambling to hold the fire back near the community of Masonville, warning of “extreme” behavior.

The fire, which is just 56% contained and has been burning since Aug. 13, has grown amid high winds and warmer temperatures. The fire was already the third largest in Colorado history before its explosive growth on Tuesday night through Wednesday evening, when it expanded by more than 20,000 acres.

“High winds throughout the night have created extreme fire conditions for firefighters,” the fire’s incident commanders said in a news release.

“This is a dynamic situation,” incident commanders added.

In a community briefing Wednesday night held over Facebook Live, officials noted that Wednesday’s spread could likely be the worst of the coming days, given changing weather and terrain conditions. However, incident commander Dan Dallas cautioned that the situation is still not stable and could change very quickly again.

“We’re not through this wave of activity yet, and please bear with us,” Dallas said.

Multiple evacuations were announced throughout the day on Wednesday, many of which began as voluntary but later switched to mandatory. New mandatory evacuation orders covered the areas of Bobcat Ridge Natural Area, Masonville, Horsetooth Mountain Road, and portions of County Road 52E. 

Lory State Park is under mandatory evacuation orders as well. U.S. 34 has been shut down west of Loveland and Fort Collins because of the fire’s growth.

Dozens of structures had already been consumed by the blaze before it grew on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We do know that we lost structures today,” Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said Wednesday night. “It was a bad day. It very easily could have been a lot worse.”

Smith said that many of the day’s evacuations, and their urgency, were not anticipated.

“This was really almost an epic day for doing evacuations,” Smith said.

The Cameron Peak fire as seen from Trilby Road. (Luke Runyon, KUNC)

However, Smith said he’s not worried about the fire expanding into Fort Collins or Loveland. This is in large part due to the terrain between the fire and the cities, as well as less heavy vegetation to help carry the fire.

The wildfire is believed to have been human caused. How it started remains under investigation.

The Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team took command of the fire early Wednesday morning, indicating officials’ increasing concern about the fire’s potential for growth.

Dallas, the incident commander, recalled the 2012 High Park fire. His team had been called in to manage that blaze, and later was summoned again for the 2013 floods. He noted in Wednesday’s evening briefing that the High Park fire’s burn scar, which has transitioned from dense forest to relatively open grassland, helped slow the Cameron Peak fire’s progress.

Dramatic images of the fire’s smoke plume over Fort Collins filled social media throughout the day on Wednesday. The column was visible from as far south as Broomfield.

Smoke choked the skies in Fort Collins on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. (Nathan Hahn, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Cameron Peak fire is now far larger than the previous largest fire in Colorado’s recorded history, the Pine Gulch fire, which torched about 139,000 acres near Grand Junction earlier this year.

The third largest wildfire in Colorado’s history was the 2002 Hayman fire, which burned about 137,000 acres.

The state’s 10 largest fires have all happened since 2000. Scientists say climate change is to blame for the ripe fire conditions this summer.

To see an updated list of voluntary and mandatory evacuations, go to the Cameron Peak Fire Facebook page or the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office website.

Updated at 1:49 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect the growing size of the Cameron Peak fire.

Lucy Haggard was a TRENDS Reporting Fellow from August 2020 to May 2021 with The Colorado Sun. Email: Twitter: @lucy_haggard

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated...