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Colorado wildfires drag on later than normal, break records

DENVER (AP) - Orange skies, winds gusting up to 70 mph, smoke tornadoes and hazardous air. While it could be an apocalyptic scene out of a movie, it has become the reality of Colorado’s wildfire season.

The blazes have burned the second-most acreage since 2000 and included the state’s two largest on record. One of Colorado’s smaller fires exploded late Wednesday from 30 square miles to 196 square miles and closed Rocky Mountain National Park. Fire officials say it has so far burned 265 square miles.

Normally, snow helps tamp down the devastation by this time of year, but drought across Colorado and warming temperatures have dragged out the season, fire scientist Jennifer Balch said.

“We don’t see October fires that get this large,” she said.

Colorado’s fires haven’t destroyed as many homes as the headline-grabbing wildfires in California and the Pacific Northwest the past few months, but they have worn down residents already weary from the coronavirus pandemic.

Glen Akins said the smoke has gotten thick and dark enough that streetlights have turned on during the day where he lives in the northern Colorado city of Fort Collins, where a nearby fire in the foothills has burned more than 318 square miles to become the largest in state history.

As a cyclist, part of Akins’ daily routine now includes checking the weather and smoke forecast before going outside. He’s also packed a bag in case of an evacuation order.

Akins said that “with a little bit of work,” he’s planned rides between the smoke of two fires in Wyoming and Colorado.

“I was in a pocket of clean air perfectly trapped between the Cameron Peak Fire smoke to the south and the Mullen Fire smoke to the north,” Akins said.

In parts of Colorado, the sky has been gray, the sun hazy and the odor of a burning campfire persistent for much of September and October. The Denver metro area and eastern Plains have been blanketed with smoke from fires not only in Colorado but blown in from Utah, California and Wyoming.

More than 700 square miles of land has burned in Colorado at a cost of more than $215 million - with the numbers still rising, according to Larry Helmerick, fire information coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.

A fire that began in July and was finally contained in mid-September near the western Colorado city of Grand Junction became the largest in state history - charring over 217 square miles. It was only one month later that the fire burning near Fort Collins, called the Cameron Peak Fire, set another record. That fire is still spreading, with firefighters having contained a little over half of the blaze as of Thursday.

Officials say there’s potential for it to merge with a nearby fire that exploded overnight, closing Rocky Mountain National Park and forcing people in and around a gateway town to evacuate.

Scientists say climate change is responsible for more intense and frequent extreme events such as storms, droughts, flooding and wildfires.

This year has been notable for drought, which has intensified the wildfires, said Balch, who’s director of Earth Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, which focuses on analyzing data behind environmental changes. The U.S. Drought Monitor designated all of Colorado as abnormally dry or in drought for the first time in eight years, with many areas labeled “extreme” or “severe.”

Smoke rises from mountain ridges as a motorist heads eastbound on Highway 34 while a wildfire burns Thursday near Granby, Colorado. AP PHOTO/DAVID ZALUBOWSKI