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Firefighters Battle Massive Fires In Colorado


More than 2,000 firefighters are battling four major blazes in Colorado. Michael Haydon is incident commander for a wildfire in the northern part of the state.


MICHAEL HAYDON: We're working with the other fires right now, trying to share resources. We've sent just about everything we have out, and we're calling from resources all over the nation.

KELLY: Colorado Public Radio reporter Michael Elizabeth Sakas joins us from the town of Eagle that's near a large fire in western Colorado. Hi there.

MICHAEL ELIZABETH SAKAS, BYLINE: Hi there. Thanks for having me on.

KELLY: So tell me exactly where you are, what you can see, what's happening there.

SAKAS: I'm not far from Dotsero, which is one of the areas on pre-evacuation notice, which means folks need to be ready to leave at any moment. The Grizzly Creek fire is burning in a canyon nearby about a mile east of Glenwood Springs, and this canyon is one of Colorado's natural treasures. One firefighter I spoke with described seeing it burn as heartbreaking. This fire has shut down Interstate 70, which is the main east-west highway into and through the mountain communities, and this shutdown is causing major issues for businesses and commuters. And because of this, it's the No. 1 fire priority in the nation to try and get it contained. And the highway has been shut down for more than a week already.

KELLY: So the No. 1 fire priority in the nation - but as we mentioned, there's three other big fires in Colorado right now. What's going on with those?

SAKAS: Yeah. More than 130,000 acres have burned in total, and a few hundred people are evacuated - some from their homes, others from campsites and trails. There hasn't been any structure loss yet. Firefighters are working really hard to try and keep that from happening.

KELLY: Sure.

SAKAS: The Pine - yeah. The Pine Gulch north of Grand Junction is now the fourth largest fire in Colorado's recorded history. And these fires are hardly contained at all at this point. And it's really smoky close to these fires especially but around the whole state. The state health department has issued an air quality alert for the Front Range and surrounding counties which warns that at-risk folks especially should stay inside, like children, older adults and those with heart or lung disease.

KELLY: Yeah. I was going to ask how the pandemic is affecting all this. How - what do we know about how COVID-19 may be affecting either the people trying to flee the fires or the firefighters trying to fight them?

SAKAS: Right. The state health department warns that there is an overlap. The people who are most impacted by wildfire smoke are the people who are most at risk for the worst symptoms of coronavirus. The state said the meeting of COVID-19 and the smoke is, quote, "a real public health issue." Some research has shown that exposure to air pollution can worsen the outcomes of catching the virus, and wildfire smoke can irritate and weaken the lungs and immune system, making someone more susceptible to infection. The state's suggestion to stay inside to avoid the smoke, they say, is now even more important because it can also help stop the spread of COVID-19 as well.

KELLY: What do we know, by the way, about what has caused these Colorado fires?

SAKAS: They're under investigation. The largest fire was caused by lightning. And right now in the Grizzly Creek Fire, the canyon fire was likely sparked by a chain dragging on the highway or maybe a cigarette out the window. It originated in traffic. But what's really fueling these fires is statewide drought and heat, and we haven't really seen those monsoon rains just yet.

KELLY: All right. Thank you so much for your reporting. Stay safe.

SAKAS: Appreciate it. Thanks for having me on.

KELLY: That is reporter Michael Elizabeth Sakas with Colorado Public Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEBS' "MARCEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas (CPR)
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