The firefighter leading the battle against the East Troublesome fire said Friday that, though danger remains, he believes the threat to Estes Park has lessened and that the town of Granby is also defensible.
The slightly upbeat assessment from Incident Commander Noel Livingston came as temperatures dropped and humidities rose a bit at the fire.
That should give the more than 700 firefighters now battling East Troublesome a better chance against what is the most explosive fire in state history — burning more than 100,000 acres in a day on the western side of the Continental Divide on Wednesday and then on Thursday leaping clear over more than a mile of tundra-covered ridgeline to start a new fire on the eastern slope.
Livingston said, even though the weather has improved from earlier in the week, it will continue to pose a challenge Friday, with higher winds forecast in the afternoon.
“A little bit cooler today weather wise, but a very active fire,” Livingston said in a morning video briefing. “We’ve got another active fire day on our hands. We expect an active fire today.”
And he said firefighters still have a lot of work to do to protect Grand Lake, the town most imperiled by the fire.
“We’re not out of the woods in the Grand Lake area,” Livingston said.
The fire grew by 45,000 to 50,000 acres on Thursday to become Colorado’s second-largest wildfire on record at 170,000 acres. Much of the new growth — responsible for enormous smoke plumes Thursday — came on the fire’s north side in remote terrain, Livingston said.
The fire grew to 188,079 acres by the end of Friday.
The fire is burning in Grand and Larimer counties, and it is just 5% contained. Most of those containment lines are on the west side of the fire.
Livingston said firefighters’ priority for Friday will be to protect communities and, when possible, individual homes from the fire’s encroachment.
“We are getting in a lot of resources, which is a great thing,” Livingston said Friday. “Particularly structure engines.”
The spot fire off the East Troublesome that flared up on the eastern side of the Continental Divide prompted hurried evacuations in Estes Park on Thursday. But Livingston said a late afternoon cold front greatly lowered temperatures and increased humidity on the eastern side of the divide, knocking the fire to the ground. That has reduced the worry that the fire could burn into Estes Park.
“That potential still exists,” Livingston said, “but at least for right now has slowed to this point.”
For logistical and communications reasons, Livingston said the spot fire on the eastern side of the divide will now be managed by the same team fighting the nearby Cameron Peak fire.
The East Troublesome torched a number of homes and potentially businesses in Grand County as it made a 20-mile run Wednesday night into Thursday morning. Damage assessments are still ongoing, so an exact destruction toll remains unknown.
A handful of people are unaccounted for. But, despite reports on social media, Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said he could not confirm any fatalities. He also said it is too soon to provide information on structures lost.
“We’re not withholding information; we’re not trying to delay information getting out there,” he said. “We don’t know.”
Schroetlin urged patience as authorities do their work. He said rumors, sometimes fed by community members who refused orders to evacuate and are now driving around within the fire’s perimeter, have made officials’ already dangerous jobs tougher.
The sheriff said there are roads blocked inside the fire lines by fallen trees and propane tanks that are venting gas. Areas that appeared to be in good shape on Thursday had fire creeping into them by Friday morning. Fire is burning near homes and roads.
“I know people are scared,” Schroetlin said. “I spoke with a gentleman at my last meeting, and I could see the tears and the fear in his eyes. And I can’t give you any answers until I know the answers myself.”
A massive area of Grand County remains under mandatory evacuation on Friday, including everything along the U.S. 34 corridor to the northeast of Granby and everything west of Granby along Colorado 125.
In Larimer County, Estes Park remains under a mandatory evacuation order. The fire is also burning in Rocky Mountain National Park, which has been shut down.
Granby, Hot Sulphur Springs and Parshall in Grand County remain on pre-evacuation notice. Livingston said he is most concerned about the fire growing toward those towns on Friday, and firefighters worked Thursday to dig in fire lines or set back-burns to fortify the towns.
But Livingston said Granby has an advantage that Grand Lake does not. While the latter town is mostly shrouded in trees, Granby sits more in the open, much of it surrounded by grasses and shrubs. Fire is easier to suppress in those fuels, though it can also move faster, Livingston said. They also make access easier, giving Livingston a “high degree of confidence” that firefighters could be successful against the fire if it moves toward Granby.
“I would say Granby is defensible,” Livingston said. “It’s not in heavy timber or terrain where we can’t get to it. It’s just the opposite.”
The cause of the East Troublesome remains under investigation, but authorities preliminarily believe it was started by a person or people.
Gov. Jared Polis is expected to meet with evacuees on Friday before heading to the Front Range to assess fire resources.
A dry and hot summer driven by a changing climate has been blamed for the conditions that led to Colorado’s months of destructive wildfire. People across the state have been dealing with smoke and flames for months and several large fires continue to burn.
A reprieve in the form of a significant snowstorm is expected to move into Colorado over the weekend. However, firefighters are still bracing for several more weeks battling flames in the state.