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Oct. 22, 2020, 9:42 p.m. EDT

Rare late-season wildfires continue to rage in Colorado

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By Associated Press

DENVER — 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.

While the season began with limited property destruction, two fires erupted last weekend in Boulder that burned 26 homes. One of them belonged to Brian DeToy and Sheryl Shafer.

The couple was packing Saturday afternoon when firefighters arrived to evacuate homes. By then, they had just minutes to escape the “hellscape” roaring over a ridge to their house, DeToy said. Although they could see the smoke behind them, the couple held out hope.

“As Sheryl and I were packing, I think in each of our minds was that we were going to be come back. It might be hours, it might be days, but we’ll be coming back,” DeToy said.

The next morning, the sheriff’s office confirmed that their home was destroyed. For now, they’re staying with friends.

“On Sunday night into Monday morning, both Sheryl and I woke up in the middle of the night and just cried for an hour and a half,” he said.

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.

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