A tanker drops fire retardant near Bear Peak while battling a blaze near… (Andy Cross / Denver Post )
Help came from the heavens Wednesday when heavy rains drenched the Flagstaff fire near Boulder, Colo., but officials warned that even days of such weather couldn't alleviate the bone-dry conditions that have inflicted weeks of wildfires on the West.
Firefighters responded to a series of lightning-sparked spot fires during the thunderstorm but managed to extinguish them. And thanks to the rain, the relative humidity rose to 50% and triple-digit temperatures plunged into the 70s.
Earlier in the day, Boulder had braced for evacuations as the flames approached. But at an evening news briefing, officials said the Flagstaff fire was now 30% contained, and pre-evacuation notices had been lifted for south Boulder neighborhoods.
"A combination of more favorable weather conditions and the effectiveness of firefighting efforts has decreased concern for the Flagstaff fire to move into the city," Boulder spokeswoman Sarah Huntley said in a statement.
The blaze remained at 280 to 300 acres and was not expected to grow significantly overnight, according to the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. Nighttime temperatures were expected to range from the mid-50s to the low 60s -- a far cry from the triple-digit heat that has plagued Colorado and its firefighters this summer.
Despite the rainy respite, officials warned that conditions remained dry, much of the forest remained dead because of the climate and the pine bark beetle, and the heat was expected to return. On Thursday, the temperature was expected to reach 92.
"Even though we have made progress on this fire today and we feel that we can breathe a little easier, this situation will continue throughout the summer," Boulder fire spokeswoman Kim Kobel told The Times. "The conditions are just ripe for these wildfires."
Fire crews planned to work all night, officials said. No structures had been damaged or destroyed and no injuries had been reported.
But conditions could change in an instant, Kobel warned. The blaze was burning on the backside of a mountain in rough terrain.
"Some spot fires have jumped the ridge, but we have been working really hard to keep it from jumping down into ... Boulder," she said.
Meanwhile, in Colorado Springs, thunderstorms dropped temperatures into the 70s and the relative humidity was expected to rise above 40% as rain continued to fall. The Waldo Canyon fire exceeded 18,000 acres and had destroyed homes, but officials weren't prepared to say how many.
The High Park fire west of Fort Collins is the most destructive in state history. More than 87,000 acres have burned, along with more than 250 homes. As of Wednesday, the Denver Post reported, it was 65% contained and officials said most evacuees would be able to return home within 48 hours.