In a scene reminiscent of last summer, acrid smoke hung in the air in Greeley on Friday night as an 800-acre wildfire, driven by erratic winds, threatened more than 50 homes in northern Colorado and prompted hundreds of evacuation orders.
Like this past summer, the fire got the attention of Greeley water officials.
“We are quite concerned. The fire on the Poudre last year blackened quite a bit of our Poudre supply,” said Jon Monson, Greeley Water and Sewer Department director. “The Lory State Park drains into Horsetooth. Now, Horsetooth Reservoir is part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project and that is a second supply, so if both of those supplies are compromised then we’d be focused more on the Greeley and Loveland system for our supple coming out of the Big Thompson. This could be a fairly significant problem for us.”
The fire began Friday west of Fort Collins and was burning west of Horsetooth Reservoir, near the scene of a large wildfire last summer that burned 259 homes and killed one person.
Firefighters saved two homes and a state park visitors center from flames, authorities said. They said no homes had been destroyed.
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Department said 860 phone lines got automated calls ordering evacuations Friday, but some addresses have multiple lines and other numbers were cellphones, so the exact number of homes in the evacuation area was not known.
Some people believed to be hiking in Lory State Park were unaccounted for, but sheriff’s spokesman Nick Christensen said they were not believed to be in imminent danger. Park rangers were looking for them.
Some evacuations ordered earlier Friday were lifted.
The cause of the fire is under investigation and authorities had no estimate of when it would be contained.
“The winds are playing a major factor right now,” said Patrick Love, a spokesman for the Poudre Valley Fire Authority. “We’ve had variable and erratic winds all day long.”
The wind initially pushed the fire north, prompting authorities to evacuate neighborhoods on the northwest side of the reservoir.
But the winds suddenly shifted to the south, and deputies and state troopers quickly barricaded another neighborhood on the southwest side of the reservoir that hadn’t been officially evacuated.
“It’s pretty ridiculous to shut things down and not let anyone know,” said Mark Martina, a mortgage broker who was heading home to get his dog when he reached the new roadblock not far from his house.
When authorities began allowing some residents back in for brief visits to retrieve valuables, Martina said he planned to stay as long as necessary to collect birth certificates, guns and other important items.
“I’m not a complete idiot. I’m going to leave if it’s coming close,” he said.
Chicago resident Terry Jones and his family were in a vacation house they own when they saw smoke billowing toward them, and then officers pounded on their door and told them to leave.
Late Friday afternoon, as the sun turned hillsides pink and smoke obscured the reservoir, Jones was asked if he’d rather be back home in Chicago.
“No,” he said. “Not even with the fire.”
The fire came as much of the state dealt with drought conditions after a relatively dry winter. The snowpack in the mountains was low, leaving farmers wondering how many crops to plant and raising the possibility of lawn-watering restrictions along the Front Range.
Monson said the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District spent more than $100,000 last year trying to stabilize the soil from the High Park fire that goes into Horsetooth. Brian Warner, spokesman for the district said officials are monitoring the fire.
“We don’t have anybody up there right now. There’s not a lot we can do. We’re trying to stay out of the way, but obviously we’re paying attention to it because it’s right above our water supply.”