GRANBY, Colo. — “Pray for snow,” is the refrain every autumn across Colorado’s high country as people wait for blizzards to blanket ski slopes, recharge reservoirs and bring in the wintertime tourists.
But on Friday, people were praying for the snow to save their homes, and the weekend forecast brought hope that snowfall could start by late Saturday evening. It was their only chance of relief from a spree of late-season wildfires that have choked skies with smoke and sent thousands fleeing, a grim coda to a year of relentless, record-setting wildfires.
Across the West, wildfires are now burning later into the fall — and even wintertime — as climate change turns seasonal wildfires into a year-round menace by disrupting rainfall patterns, melting snow earlier and scorching meadows and lodgepole pine forests into tinder. The result is shaping not just the states’ geography and daily life but people’s psychology and basic sense of where they live.
“It’s crazy, just crazy,” said Mike Diets, who spent Friday trying to find out whether his two lakeside houses in drought-stricken Grand County were still standing. “It’s hunting season. We’d usually be wading through snow this time of year.”
Even with a blizzard forecast to bring moisture to the Rocky Mountains by Sunday, fire crews in Northern Colorado spent another grueling day on Friday battling 60 mile-an-hour wind gusts and trying to get control of the East Troublesome fire. The 188,000-acre wildfire has destroyed an unknown number of homes as it roared through ranches, lakeside resorts and Rocky Mountain National Park this week.
Across Colorado’s mountain towns, people who have been choking on smoke for months and now sleep with “go bags” packed in their cars have been asking: When will it end?
“It’s like Armageddon,” said Jacquelyn Evanich, who watched three huge wildfires burning this week from the office window of the motel she manages in the town of Granby, on the edge of the East Troublesome fire. “We’ve been around fires all year, it feels like.”
In a year when blazes have ravaged the West, fire season is not over, particularly in California, where 4 million acres have burned this year. Large swaths of Northern California, including the San Francisco Bay Area, are bracing for what meteorologists are describing as the most severe fire weather of the year, with wind gusts projected as high as 70 miles an hour Sunday through Wednesday. Fires that ignited in those conditions in recent years have been uncontrollable.
Some 5,500 firefighters are still working to contain the megafires that ignited in August and September, including the Creek fire, which started on Labor Day weekend and is still burning through the Sierra Nevada southeast of Yosemite National Park. It was 61 percent contained on Friday and continues to produce large amounts of smoke.
The state’s largest electricity provider, Pacific Gas & Electric, has announced plans to turn off power to tens of thousands of households to prevent their equipment from sparking new fires. With most students in the San Francisco Bay Area studying online, schools in affected areas were scrambled on Friday to develop alternative plans for households without power.
In Colorado, Sheriff Brett Schroetlin of Grand County said the East Troublesome fire was changing unpredictably, hour by hour, making it difficult to tell residents whether their property had survived or was in danger.
Evacuees uncertain whether they still have a home have spent days trying to glean scraps of information by listening to radio scanners, poring over satellite images and scouring Facebook pages for photos or videos of their neighborhoods.
The toll came into focus on Friday for one family.
Relatives of Lyle and Marylin Hileman, a couple in their 80s, said the Hilemans had died after taking refuge in a concrete closet in their basement as fire swept through their home near the town of Grand Lake.
To the Hilemans and other residents, Grand County was a Rocky Mountain paradise, a place rooted in ranching that has seen an influx of second homeowners and wealthy vacationers who come to fly-cast and teach their children to ride horseback.
The Hilemans had planned to ride out the fire in the big yellow house that they had built themselves, and where their extended family always gathered. Glenn Hileman, one of their five children, said his mother called him on Wednesday night to say that “the big one” was closing in and that meadows were already ablaze. But they decided to stay.
“There’s no way they would have left,” Glenn Hileman said.
There were flurries of conflicting posts on neighborhood social media groups about whether the couple had made it out as the fire grew by 100,000 acres that night. Firefighters told the family they had tried to take a bulldozer up to the house to reach them, but were blocked by fallen trees and flames. On Friday morning, family members said they had gotten confirmation from local authorities that the Hilemans’ house had been incinerated.
“They’ve never been apart, ever,” Glenn Hileman said. “I don’t think either of them could’ve had an idea of leaving this world apart. They were going to survive it together or they were not. Either way, they were going to do it together.”
Late Friday night, Sheriff Schroetlin confirmed their deaths.
A granddaughter, Stephanie Hileman, recalled her 86-year-old grandfather, a retired Denver firefighter, as a jokester who rose before dawn to plow snow or build fences on the property he loved and spent nearly 50 years cultivating. She said her 84-year-old grandmother was a “Wonder Woman” who had worked in a mental-health facility and kept an ever-growing collection of 40 candy bowls out for guests.
“It was heartbreaking,” Stephanie Hileman said.
Firefighters are now in a race with nature, trying to limit the fire’s spread and its toll as a wintry system is expected to move into Colorado’s high country Saturday night with rain changing to heavy snow by Sunday. Sunday night’s temperatures in the Grand Lake area are forecast to plunge to 7 below, and forecasters expect up to a foot of snow.
Evan Direnzo, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Boulder, where firefighters have now largely contained two fires that erupted this past weekend, said even a thick quilt of snow might not be enough to quench the fires.
“They can just simmer under there for a long time,” he said, recalling how the Cameron Peak Fire burning north of Rocky Mountain National Park had survived an early-September blizzard. “People were going out and digging under the snow and there was fire under it. It was just chilling, waiting to come back.”
Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist, said it was unusual to even discuss hopes that a snowstorm will put down a forest fire. But she said the late-season fire conditions offered a clear signal of climate change that would not be going away.
“I don’t think we have ever talked about, ‘What is the amount of snow that we need to put out the fire season, to quelch the fire season,’” said Dr. Balch, director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We essentially have summer running into winter and we’ve skipped the fall.”
Fire ecologists and forecasters say the moisture levels in dead trees and other vegetation are at record lows while measurements that predict the speed of fires and height of their flames are at record highs. The entire state is in a drought, and Grand County is locked in extreme or exceptional drought — the most severe classifications.
“In the last 30 years, this has been the driest growing season, by far,” said Klaus Wolter, a climatologist at the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. He owns a home about four miles from where the Cal-Wood Fire erupted in Boulder County on Saturday.
He said conditions are worse than 2002, a notorious year in Colorado for wildfires when the Hayman Fire northwest of Colorado Springs scorched more than 138,000 acres and 133 homes.
For years, the Hayman stood as the largest recorded wildfire in state history, but it has now been overtaken by three mega-fires that erupted this year alone. The largest and second-largest of those — the Cameron Peak Fire and East Troublesome Fire — are now burning 10 miles apart from each other, raising worries that they could merge.
Everyone is making adjustments, some unimaginable.
Kristin Hulinsky was cooking dinner for herself and her 7-year-old daughter, Brilea, at the Winding River Ranch wedding venue when the order came Wednesday evening to evacuate.
“It looked like the gates of hell,” said Ms. Hulinsky, who served as ranch manager at the property. “I don’t know how else to explain it. It was practically raining ashes. We got out before we saw any flames, we had to get out there so fast.”
Ms. Hulinsky and her daughter jumped in her car and sped to a family member’s home to the west, in Kremling.
She has now seen photos, taken by the venue’s owner, confirming that all 19 structures on the property, including a lodge, nine cabins, a ranch house and five barns, are a total loss.
Ms. Hulinksy, has now moved down to the Front Range city of Lakewood, set up by her sister for now with a data entry job.
“There are no words,” Ms. Hulinsky said.