Firefighters attempting to protect the town of Estes Park from the fast-moving East Troublesome fire on Saturday kept the flames within the road system in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Heavy snow is in the forecast for Saturday night, but federal incident commander Noel Livingston said there was significant growth in what is now known as the Thompson Zone, “with a lot of active fire spread and the community still at risk.”
Earlier in the day, Estes Valley Fire Protection District Chief David Wolf said heavy winds had caused the fire inside the park to double to about 3,000 acres overnight and threaten the YMCA of the Rockies complex just southeast of Moraine Park.
The fire had split into two fingers around a burn scar inside the park, running to the south between Steep Mountain and Bierstadt Lake, and to the north along a ridge above Moraine Park, where Livingston said firefighters used burnout techniques to check its spread.
“Hallelujah,” Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said on Facebook. “We made it through the forecasted wind events. The cold, moist front is arriving and the fire did not make it into Estes Park!”
Saturday evening, the Estes fire protection district reported in a Facebook post that 35 engines and crews from fire departments across the state worked with federal firefighting teams “to have a successful outcome.”
“There have been no impacts to the Estes Valley as of writing this,” the post said.
Still, the fire department wrote, the Thompson Zone “is not out or even contained completely, so we will be back to work tomorrow.”
Snow forecast for Saturday night will help rehydrate trees and grasses left tinder-dry by drought and fierce winds and “remove them from being available for combustion,” Livingston said.
When firefighters on the Grand County side of the fire return to work Sunday, they will be able to mix in the snow to soil as they reinforce containment lines. The fire is just 4 to 5% contained, although Livingston said he expects that percentage to rise on Sunday.
Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin during a community briefing Saturday night said it may be days before the county starts notifying people who lost homes and cabins when the East Troublesome made a terrifying 100,000-acre run Wednesday night into Thursday.
He did, however, say that damage along U.S. 34 from mile marker 8 into the Grand Lake area appears to be limited to properties on the west side of the highway.
“At this point in time, there are no known structures on the east side of Highway 34 damaged, except for six or seven miles up, there are a couple in there,” Schroetlin said.
A large number of homes were destroyed and several people are still missing in Grand County.
On Friday night, Schroetlin confirmed that at least two people had died in the fire during the blaze’s rapid growth. The bodies of Lyle and Marilyn Hileman, who were both in their mid 80s, were discovered on Friday afternoon by sheriff’s investigators in their home near Grand Lake.
Schroetlin said the two had “refused to evacuate” and wanted to stay in their longtime residence as flames approached.
The Hileman’s family members released a statement through Schroetlin: “Our parents loved Grand Lake. Married at a young age, they honeymooned in the area in 1952. Years later, they would buy the property adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park. The property became a lifelong mission to create ‘heaven on earth.'”
The statement said the couple called a son as the fire approached and homes started burning around them. They were calm and said they were going to shelter in their basement.
When the son tried to call back shortly thereafter, there was no answer. The home was destroyed.
“Our family feels comfort in the knowledge our parents left this world together and on their own terms,” the statement said.
The East Troublesome fire as of noon Saturday had burned about 191,000 acres, Livingston said.
The fire started Oct. 14 in Grand County and during its epic run, leaped over more than a mile of tundra-covered ridgeline in Rocky Mountain National Park to start the Thompson Zone fire on the eastern slope.
Residents began evacuating Estes Park on Thursday. A mandatory order was issued for the entire town Saturday morning after the fire became “very active” overnight and started moving toward the town. Winds in Rocky Mountain National Park were estimated at 60 miles per hour.
Parts of northwest Boulder County also were placed on pre-evacuation notice as a precaution.
On Friday, firefighters felt the fire would not reach Estes Park. But high winds ahead of a winter weather system moving into Colorado were a significant danger.
Estes Valley Fire Protection District Chief Wolf in an interview with Fox31 Saturday morning said the surge of support from other departments would help Estes “put up the best fight that we can.”
A red flag warning, cautioning of extreme fire conditions, is in effect Saturday for eastern Grand and western Larimer counties, until 7 p.m. Saturday. Strong winds and low relative humidity, paired with months of drought conditions driven by a changing climate, mean there’s a high likelihood for fast-moving fire.
The cause of the East Troublesome fire remains under investigation.
A winter storm watch is in effect for the burn area and much of the state until 6 p.m. on Monday. The mountains could receive several inches of snow.
Officials say while the winter storm will aid them, it’s not expected to put out the East Troublesome fire or other fires still burning in Colorado.