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Early Season Snowfall Helps Firefighters Stall Colorado Wildfire

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Colorado went from fire to snow within 24 hours. The snowstorm has brought some much-needed relief to crews battling the state's largest active wildfire. Matt Bloom from member station KUNC reports.

MATT BLOOM, BYLINE: By Labor Day, the Cameron Peak fire had been burning near Rocky Mountain National Park for almost a month. The holiday brought temperatures in the 90s and strong winds that drove the fire into lots of dead, dry trees. It tripled in size in a matter of hours to more than 100,000 acres and sent a massive plume of smoke into the sky. Sue Hewlitt's (ph) home was in the fire's path.

SUE HEWLITT: It looked like Armageddon - dark as dusk and street lights on.

BLOOM: Hewlitt and thousands of other residents packed up their cars and quickly evacuated. The Red Cross put more than 150 families up in local hotels. Firefighters were put on the defensive. Then, at a seemingly perfect moment, the weather changed.

RUSS SCHUMACHER: We have a history of snow in September, but never this early and never this much.

BLOOM: Russ Schumacher, Colorado State climatologist, said a surprise cold front moved in from the north Monday night, causing one of the state's largest 24-hour temperature drops on record. Several inches of snow buried the fire under a blanket of white powder.

FRED COLLIER: I'd say there's 3 to 4 inches piled up on the table. I don't smell any smoke.

BLOOM: Fred Collier and his stepmom chose not to leave their cabin, which was under an evacuation order. And by Tuesday morning, talking on his back porch, he said he felt like Mother Nature was on his side.

COLLIER: Hopefully, all this moisture will give these firefighters an upper hand on all this. I've seen the weather, and I know it's going to get warm again in a few days. Welcome to Colorado.

BLOOM: And the fire is still hot underneath all that snow, says Paul Bruggink, a spokesman for the team managing it.

PAUL BRUGGINK: The snow is going to melt. Gradual warm-up is predicted by the end of the week. We're hoping that some night, we can get a infrared flight and find out where actual hot spots are.

BLOOM: Doing that gives firefighters an extra window of time to build firebreaks around homes in the area.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

BLOOM: Still, some evacuees are cautious about returning home. As the snow fell Tuesday, Sean Elsper helped his family load their four horses into a temporary evacuation stable. He says he's seen fires before and knows they can be unpredictable.

SEAN ELSPER: The horses technically could go back up, but we're going to wait a couple days and see what happens.

BLOOM: Other residents are already heading back home. The local sheriff's department lifted a mandatory evacuation for parts of the fire area, but it's telling residents to be ready to leave again if dry, windy weather returns.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Bloom in Greeley, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF WE CAME FROM THE NORTH'S "BORDER MONUMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.