FRASER, Colo. — Rocky Mountain National Park was burning. Once-tranquil mountain valleys and ranches were choked with smoke and flames. Thousands of cars jammed onto two-lane rural roads as new evacuation orders popped up by the minute.
Scenes of panic and destruction played out across Northern Colorado on Thursday as a late-season wildfire exploded through the parched woods and valleys around Rocky Mountain National Park, offering a grim example of how climate change is making fire seasons longer and more destructive across the West.
“This is the worst of the worst of the worst,” said Sheriff Brett Schroetlin of Grand County, where the East Troublesome Fire had burned about 125,600 acres by Thursday afternoon.
The fire destroyed what Sheriff Schroetlin characterized as “lots” of structures as it chewed through swaths of ranches, second homes, businesses and cabins, but officials did not have any estimates on how many buildings and homes were damaged. There were no reports of deaths or injuries.
Fire crews and residents were staggered by the fire’s speed and ferocity. It grew by more than 100,000 acres overnight into Thursday, a pace of 6,000 acres per hour, racing into Rocky Mountain National Park, forcing the park to close down, and jumping over the Continental Divide.
“The fire marshal was running through the streets saying to get out,” said Daniel Lintz, 33, who fled the town of Grand Lake on Wednesday night. “It was snowing ash.”
By Thursday afternoon, the fire was pushing toward the resort town of Estes Park, on the eastern side of the national park, turning skies smoky yellow and forcing rounds of mandatory evacuations there. Infrared maps posted by the National Weather Service showed a throbbing landscape of orange and red capturing the fire’s fierce growth.
It was just the latest of several wildfires that have ravaged Colorado in the past few weeks, lofting pillars of smoke and clotting skies around Denver with haze and ash.
Fire crews in Boulder County, home to the University of Colorado, are still fighting two fires that erupted in the foothills over the weekend, and firefighters have spent two months battling the Cameron Peak Fire north of Rocky Mountain National Park, which is now the largest wildfire in state history.
A snowstorm is expected to hammer Colorado this weekend, offering some hope that winter’s early arrival might tamp down fires and reduce the flammability of dry brush. But storms can also complicate firefighting efforts by reducing visibility and making scorched mountains vulnerable to landslides.
On Thursday, evacuees jammed the roads as officials expanded evacuation orders, their faces tight with anxiety as they tried to figure out where to go next. Hotels and motels across the area were booked up with evacuees. On the clogged roads, officers waved people through intersections to try to keep traffic flowing.
In the town of Fraser, outside the evacuation zone, the parking lot outside a Safeway grocery store was bustling with people buying emergency supplies.
Travis Darby was loading groceries he’d bought into the back of his SUV, as the heavy veil of smoke continued to mass directly to the north. He would be taking them to a nearby school for distribution to evacuees. Prepackaged foods, crackers, bread, fruit and canned goods made up most of his load.
“This is a very small community, and this is the kind of thing we do,” Mr. Darby said. “We take care of each other. There are people who have lost everything.”
Mr. Darby said he anxiously followed an emergency radio scanner on Wednesday night, as emergency response workers and firefighters fought to save the resort town of Grand Lake, to the north, with few resources.
“To hear them fighting to try to save that town, on the fly, it was an amazing thing to hear,” he said.
Weather forecasters warned that high winds and tinder-dry vegetation were also creating extreme fire danger in Northern California’s Napa region and the foothills around the Bay Area.
Wildfires have burned more than four million acres across California just this year, and forecasters for the National Weather Service said the critical danger posed by gusting winds was likely to last through Monday.
Cooler temperatures, rain and snow have helped to quench some blazes that raked the Pacific Northwest last month, but fire scientists said the wildfires stampeding through Colorado on the cusp of winter show how climate change is prolonging fire seasons.
Philip Higuera, an associate professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana, described a landscape in Colorado poised to explode. He said moisture levels in deadfall like logs and other fuels were at record low levels while measurements of how fast and ferociously fires are expected to grow were at record highs.
“People have built and developed in these areas without recognizing the hazard they’re in, and climate change is notching that up every year,” he said. “It has me concerned for communities across the West that are in increasingly flammable landscapes.”
Charlie Brennan reported from Fraser, and Jack Healy from Denver.
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