A quick-moving blaze in northern Colorado has led to the death of a pilot who was fighting the fire and has set off a wave of evacuations, officials said, underscoring research that wildfires are growing more intense and are occurring year-round.
As of Thursday morning, the Kruger Rock fire near the southeastern tip of Estes Park, about 40 miles northwest of Boulder, had burned 146 acres and was 40 percent contained, Larimer County officials said on Facebook. More than 200 firefighters were battling the blaze.
The fire was first reported early Tuesday morning, and crews found flames burning in steep terrain, the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. Gusty winds and low humidity, conditions that are ripe for wildfires, caused it to quickly spread, threatening structures in the area.
Several rounds of evacuation orders, both mandatory and voluntary, were issued to residents and businesses throughout the day on Tuesday. By the afternoon, the fire had burned 75 acres and caused a portion of Highway 36, a major east-west route, to close for about a day. Parts of Rocky Mountain National Park were also closed because of the fire.
Efforts to contain the blaze carried into the evening on Tuesday, when a plane carrying a load of fire suppressant crashed, killing the pilot. No one else was on board. The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash, officials said.
The pilot was identified as Marc Thor Olson, an Army and Air Force veteran, by CO Fire Aviation. He had reported moments before the crash that conditions were turbulent over the fire, the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office said on Facebook.
While some evacuation orders were lifted on Wednesday, there were worrying signs that the fire could spread.
The National Weather Service in Boulder set a red flag warning for wildfires in the foothills, South Park and the Palmer Divide through early Friday. “A very dry air mass will be in place and relative humidity will drop as low as 6 percent,” the Weather Service said, adding that wind gusts could reach 40 miles per hour.
There have been a few wildfires in Colorado this year, including the Oil Springs fire, which burned nearly 13,000 acres, and the Morgan Creek fire, which burned nearly 8,000 acres. Lightning started both. Last year, the Cameron Peak fire burned more than 200,000 acres in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests in Larimer and Jackson Counties and in Rocky Mountain National Park.
“One of the things that is a change of paradigm is Colorado used to talk about a fire season,” Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado said this spring, adding that the phenomenon was now year-round.
Severe drought conditions, worsened by climate change, continue to affect much of the Western United States and even the Northern Plains, causing headaches for farmers and ranchers and setting the stage for large wildfires to easily spread.
Wildfire experts see the signature of climate change in the dryness, high heat and longer fire season that have made these fires more extreme. “We wouldn’t be seeing this giant ramp-up in fire activity as fast as it is happening without climate change,” Park Williams, a climate scientist at U.C.L.A., said. “There’s just no way.”
Alyssa Lukpat contributed reporting.