Wildfires spread by strong winds tore across Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, rocking the mountain states even as they prepare for winter.
With temperatures forecast at just above freezing this week in Colorado, a fire burning roughly 50 miles from Denver forced evacuations and sent plumes of smoke toward the eastern plains. The Kruger Rock fire erupted after strong winds pushed a tree on to a power line. The fire spread quickly through the steep forested area covered in pine and scrub brush. Winds gusting at 45 mph (73 km/h) fanned the fire slowly eastward while local fire crews struggled to gain access.
A pilot was killed Tuesday night when a fixed-wing plane – which had never before been used to fight fire at night – crashed in the rough terrain.
Fires also forced evacuations in northern Wyoming and south-central Montana, with deputies in some areas going door-to-door warning residents to flee.
One person died in Wyoming, though officials did not release any information on how the death occurred. Kristie Hoffert, medical chief for the Clark fire district, said the person who died was a family member of a firefighter. “It hits incredibly close to home for our department”, she told the Cody Enterprise on Tuesday. “We are struggling.”
In decades past, fire season in the mountainous west wrapped up in the months before the winter storms, typically concluding its siege by August or September. But the climate crisis has delivered hotter days and drier landscapes, with the risks extending deeper into spring and autumn.
“Colorado used to talk about a fire season”, the state’s governor, Jared Polis, said in April. “It’s now a year-round phenomena.”
Meanwhile, a historic drought and recent heat waves tied to the climate crisis have made wildfires harder to fight. Scientists say the climate crisis has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
The National Weather Service in Boulder said an approaching cold front could bring higher wind gusts to the area late Tuesday but lower temperatures just above freezing on Wednesday.