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Pilot killed fighting late-season wildfire in Colorado

The fire started Tuesday morning when high winds blew over a utility line. 

(CN) — Taking advantage of a cool fall day, Colorado firefighters worked to contain the 140-acre Kruger Rock Fire in Estes Park, a blaze that turned deadly when a pilot monitoring the fire by air crashed Tuesday night.  

In a Facebook post, Colorado Fire Aviation identified and described Marc Thor Olson as an experienced combat and civilian pilot whose career spanned 42 years. A spokesperson from the agency said the cause of the accident is under investigation. 

According to the Larimer County Sheriff’s office, the fire started Tuesday morning when high winds blew over a utility line. The spark quickly grew and spread in arid, windy conditions, reaching 133 acres Tuesday night, and 140 acres by midday Wednesday.  

“The year started in a drought with high fire danger, but monsoons in July and August brought some relief,” explained Reid Armstrong, a public affairs specialist for the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests. “We haven’t seen snows yet, which is atypical and why we have higher fire danger than usual now.” 

He added: “Fires around Thanksgiving are becoming more typical. We are talking about wildfires in terms of fire years now, not fire season.” 

According to the U.S. Forest Service, more than 300,000 acres of woods in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests burned in 2020, including the record-setting Cameron Peak Fire which blackened more than 208,000 acres. 

The Kruger Rock Fire burns southeast of Estes Park, a town of 6,000 that replies on summer tourism to the Rocky Mountain National Park. As residents fled the fire zone, Estes Park provided shelter and community.  

“When I got down to the events center, where the evacuees are being sent, Kind Coffee already had coffee there and Unique Pie already had pie out,” said Estes Park Mayor Wendy Koenig. “All day long, different restaurants, brought food and the movie theater set up movies with popcorn so that people could go relax and take their mind off of what was going on with the fire.” 

She added: "The community is very bonded to each other. We run around in the summer busy taking care of 4.5 million people that come through this part, but when things calm down, we're always on the ready to take care of each other."

The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office reported 150 firefighters on the ground working to contain the blaze. 

"The traditional fire season is usually late spring to early autumn, late summer,” explained Jen Kramer, a public information office for the Larimer County Sheriff’s Department. "We’ve had fires in December and in February, so while November wildfires are not traditional, it's becoming something that we're having to deal with year-round.” 

No structure damage has been reported. 

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