Pine Gulch Fire Is Now The Largest In Colorado History

Pine Gulch Fire August 20 2020 Grand Junction wildfire
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Pine Gulch Fire, one of the largest recorded in Colorado history, burns just over the mesas near Grand Junction.

The Pine Gulch fire has become the state’s largest wildfire ever after burning through a remote high-desert area in western Colorado for nearly a month.

As of Aug. 27, it’s burned 139,006 acres and is 77 percent contained. More than 900 firefighters are battling the blaze.

"The (recent) increase in acreage is not due to the fire moving," said Jacob Welsh, a spokesman for the fire's management team. "It's due to more accurate mapping."

Crews did so with the help of flights that use infrared technology to get a better read on the fire area. Welsh said those flights had been dedicated to other fires with higher priority, especially in California.

"Fire officials feel the fire is not going to move anywhere on us in a lot of the areas that are secure and being mopped up and controlled right now," he added.

The first report of the fire came on July 31, according to fire officials, who said lightning sparked the blaze about 18 miles north of Grand Junction.

While officials have stressed that the small city is not threatened, they have ordered evacuations for a handful of rural homes closer to the fire. Residents in the stretch of Garfield County between Colorado Highway 139 and the Utah border are on pre-evacuation notice. 

The highway, which connects the Grand Junction area to Rangely, has reopened after it had been closed for nearly a week due to fire activity.

No homes have been lost. The fire has burned an unknown amount of grazing area, and ranchers have moved livestock out of the fire’s path.

Dry, hot and windy conditions have fueled much of the fire’s growth. Over the course of just a few hours on the night of Aug. 19, it burned more than 30,000 acres. It has now consumed an area larger than Denver. Though the fire’s growth has slowed, crews still face high temperatures, little humidity and wind gusts as they navigate rough terrain.

The Pine Gulch fire also brought heavy smoke to the Western Slope. And on several mornings, Grand Junction residents have woken up to thin layers of ash outside and smoke so thick it completely obscured the Book Cliffs, a mountain range on the edge of town. The fire has prompted health advisories as far north as Craig and as far east as the Front Range.

While it wreaked havoc on air quality and destroyed grazing land, the Pine Gulch fire hasn’t brought anywhere near the destruction of Colorado’s now second-largest wildfire. The Hayman Fire started near Colorado Springs in June 2002. It killed one resident and five firefighters and destroyed 133 homes.

It had burned for more than a month and barrelled through 137,760 acres of land. A former U.S. Forest Service employee later pleaded guilty to accidentally starting the fire.

CPR's Corey H. Jones contributed to this report.