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How will Tuesday’s snow affect Colorado’s wildfires?

How will Tuesday’s snow affect Colorado’s wildfires?
Posted at 12:20 PM, Sep 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-09 11:46:10-04

UPDATE | Wednesday 9:30 a.m. — About five inches of snow fell on the northern end of the Cameron Peak Fire Tuesday, but officials said the whole wildfire saw snowfall throughout the day. Read Wednesday's story here.


What happens when fire meets ice? While Tuesday’s snow will help reduce the risk of growth at Colorado's wildfires, firefighters are staying on their toes — the promise of precipitation doesn't mean the fight is over.

Crews at the Cameron Peak Fire, Williams Fork Fire, Grizzly Creek Fire and Pine Gulch Fire are using Tuesday's wet conditions to attack the wildfires differently, depending on containment and risk of future spread.

Cameron Peak Fire

Crews at the 102,596-acre Cameron Peak Fire in Larimer County are planning on taking full advantage of Tuesday’s cold temperatures and snow to monitor and suppress hot spots and control containment lines. While the cold and wet conditions will help Tuesday and Wednesday, crews are already looking ahead to prepare for warm and dry weather in the coming week.

The fire is 4% contained.

Paul Bruggink, public information officer for Cameron Peak Fire, said Tuesday’s snow will help firefighters “tremendously.” Humidity skyrocketed up to between 70% and 100% and the fuel on the ground is soaking up moisture, he said.

He said he has received reports that snow is accumulating around the fire. However, it will not be enough to extinguish the massive blaze.

“It will take successions of these over time,” he said.

Underneath the snow, the ground and combustible fuels can remain hot, he explained.

Bruggink likened it to putting out a campfire. It takes more than a couple cups of water to extinguish it completely and to ensure all embers are out, he said. Even a small campfire can take a surprising amount of water to put out.

He added that the winds that raged through the area Monday evening won’t be as much of a factor Tuesday.

However, there are other concerns, he said. Just one to two inches of rain can trigger slides on burned areas. And snow can easily fell weakened trees, which can also lead to slides. In addition, fire managers are concerned about the wind chill Tuesday evening, Bruggink said.

The cold front that moved over the fire overnight will keep cold temperatures and precipitation in the area for the next several days before a warm-up again on Friday.

By that point, the precipitation will taper off and fuels will begin to dry out.

Bruggink said the best way to support firefighters at the Cameron Peak Fire is to write cards of support or donate to your local fire agency or the American Red Cross.

The fire started on Aug. 13.

Williams Fork Fire

Tuesday's cold front will dump widespread snow over the Williams Fork Fire, which is burning southwest of Fraser. This will cool hot areas and wet some of the fuels that have been bone dry for the past few weeks. As a result, this will decrease how active the fire is on Tuesday, according to the incident management team.

Some of the air operations around the Williams Fork Fire may need to shut down Tuesday due to poor visibility and smoke.

Temperatures today will hover in the low 40s before falling to the low 20s Tuesday evening.

Fire managers said they are concerned about wind chill temperatures, since they could fall below zero.

The Williams Fork Fire, which sparked on Aug. 14, was caused by humans. It has burned 12,157 acres as of Tuesday morning.

Pine Gulch Fire

The Pine Gulch Fire, which grew to the largest wildfire in Colorado history on Aug. 27, is now 87% contained. With a 100% chance of precipitation today and almost full containment, firefighters and equipment are demobilizing in preparation of returning the management of the fire back to local agencies by the end of the week.

An estimated quarter inch to half inch of rain is expected around the fire Tuesday, which will help dampen hot spots. Wind gusts at low elevations may reach up to 25 mph and gusts on ridges could reach 45 mph. These strong winds may persist through much of the day before subsiding around sunset, according to the incident management team.

Due to the precipitation, the fire is not expected to grow at all Tuesday and fire managers said there are no areas of concern. Most of the vegetation around the fires will stay wet, however heavier materials are still able to burn and may smolder in areas that are more sheltered from the snow.

However, Tuesday's precipitation could bring other challenges, such as debris slides or gully washes.

Fire officials have asked drivers to use extra caution when using dirt roads in the area.

The Pine Gulch Fire started on July 31 and has burned 139,007 acres. It was caused by lightning.

Grizzly Creek Fire

Like the Pine Gulch Fire, the Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon is also mostly contained. During a morning operations update, the operations section chief said containment increased to 91% and for the ninth straight day, the fire had not expanded.

As the cold front pushes through from the north, showers began as early as sunrise around the Grizzly Creek Fire. Temperatures will fall throughout the day and are expected to reach the 30s by the early evening, when rain will turn to snow.

Two to six inches of snow are forecasted for the area of the fire, with higher amounts for places above 10,000 feet, according to the incident management team.

Grizzly Creek Fire Safety Officer Mike Bradley said he has urged firefighters to use caution when working in the freezing rain and snow, since it will create dangerous driving conditions and poor visibility. The wintry storms will likely last into Wednesday before they taper off.

While these conditions — paired with almost full containment — will reduce the risk of fire spread, the inclement weather may still slow progress.

The Alaska Incident Management Team, which has been working at the fire, will turn management back to local agencies on Wednesday.

The fire has burned 32,464 acres and started Aug. 10. It was caused by humans.