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Wildfire burning outside Estes Park forces evacuations amid dry, windy conditions

Kruger Rock fire may have been sparked by power lines or a transformer, sheriff says

The Kruger Rock fire continues to burn on the south side of Estes Park on Nov. 16, 2021.
The Kruger Rock fire continues to burn on the south side of Estes Park on Nov. 16, 2021.

ESTES PARK — Sarah Hastings and Zoe Karam woke Tuesday to see fire billowing over a mountain near the 19 acres where they live in a motor home off U.S. 36 in Larimer County.

Ordered to evacuate, they packed up the motor home, a travel trailer, a utility trailer and several motorcycles, moving everything into Estes Park and out of the wildfire’s path.

“Luckily, we are RV’ers so we could get our whole home out,” Karam said.

The fire the pair fled from forced mandatory evacuations in several neighborhoods south of Estes Park on Tuesday. The Kruger Rock fire grew to about 133 acres after it was first reported around 7 a.m. near Little Valley Road and Fish Creek Road, according to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office. The fire was 15% contained Tuesday evening.

Late Tuesday night, Larimer sheriff’s officials announced a single-engine air tanker had crashed near one of the areas under evacuation, killing the pilot and sole occupant.

The late-season blaze took some residents by surprise, but Colorado has experienced longer wildfire seasons in recent years, with fires more frequently burning in the fall and winter amid long-term drought and a warming climate.

“Fire knows no season,” said Capt. Brendan Finnegan, wildland fire coordinator at the West Metro Fire Protection District. “Fire doesn’t know what time of year it is and whether we should be watching the Super Bowl or skiing. If conditions are ripe and ready, it’s always dangerous.”

Climate change has extended summer’s warm temperatures and delayed snowfall, creating a longer fire season, said Adam Mahood, a postdoctoral researcher at Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. The trend has been building in Colorado for the last decade, he said.

“Maybe 20 years ago we would have definitely been covered in snow by now, and now the snow is coming later and melting sooner,” he said.

Windy and dry conditions fueled the Kruger Rock fire Tuesday, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said. The fire may have started from a spark on power lines or a power transformer during strong overnight winds, he said. A fire investigator was looking into those reports.

Blustery winds made it too dangerous for aircraft to fly in the mountains and too unpredictable to send firefighters on the ground Tuesday, Smith said. About 150 people were called in to work the fire.

The wind on Tuesday blew the flames away from homes in the Little Valley neighborhood, Smith said. Fire crews shored up the back end of the fire to protect the neighborhood should the wind change directions, he said.

The wildfire threatened structures, but no damage was reported by Tuesday evening. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for the areas of Little Valley, Hermit Park, Meadowdale, Big Elk Meadows and Pinewood Springs.

U.S. 36 was blanketed in heavy smoke for several miles and was closed between Lyons and Estes Park.


The Estes Park Event Center at 1125 Rooftop Way served as an evacuation shelter Tuesday, as well as LifeBridge Church at 10345 Ute Highway in Longmont. The YMCA at 2515 Tunnel Road in Estes Park was available for overnight stays.

Small animals could be evacuated to the Larimer Humane Society at 3501 E. 71st St. in Loveland, officials said. Large animals could go to The Ranch at 5280 Arena Circle in Loveland.

About a dozen people gathered at the shelter location in Estes Park, where local businesses provided pies, pizza, burritos and junk food to evacuees.

They were relaxed, and several said they knew what to do Tuesday morning because they experienced evacuations in 2020 during the East Troublesome fire, a blaze that started on Oct. 14, 2020, and burned more than 193,000 acres before it fizzled.

Tom Musslewhite said he woke around 6:25 a.m. Tuesday and built a fire to warm the house when he realized he didn’t have electricity. His daughter, Debbie Goldwater, woke about an hour later when her brother called to tell them about a mandatory evacuation in the area.

“I got up and dressed as quick as I could. I grabbed my purse and the dog and we left,” Goldwater said.

“We knew not to wait,” Musslewhite said about receiving notice to evacuate. Fire crews came to their door shortly after his son called.

Residents watch as the Kruger Rock fire continues to burn in Estes Park on Nov. 16, 2021.

The evacuees were encouraged to hear winds were blowing flames away from their Little Valley home. But they worried about the electricity going out. Freezing temperatures overnight could cause their plumbing to burst.

“We’re hoping we get power restored before too long because we worry about freezing pipes,” Musslewhite said.

By early evening, Estes Park officials announced power had been restored to Little Valley and Rockwood Estates.

Joe Atterbury, who evacuated from his home in Pole Hill, said he’d been hoping to make it through 2021 without a fire evacuation.

“I thought I’d make it through this year, but no,” Atterbury said.

Officials sent out mandatory evacuation notices to 317 contacts and voluntary evacuation notices to 1,149 contacts, Larimer County Sheriff’s Office spokesman David Moore said. That number is likely higher than the actual number of people evacuating because a single person can sign up to receive multiple notifications and be counted as multiple contacts, he said.

Much of the Front Range was under a red flag warning Tuesday, though the area where the Kruger Rock fire burned was not covered by that warning. Finnegan, the West Metro fire captain, said his department no longer considers summer to be Colorado’s fire season — just the peak of the season.

“We’re continuing to watch a growing trend with fires pretty much every month of the year,” he said. “We definitely have our peak times, which is, in Colorado, June through August, but it’s crept up into the fall, and now it’s creeping up into winter.”