Colorado’s Record-Breaking Blazes Illustrate the West’s Lengthening Fire Season

Fire season is usually over by this time in October, but, in a trend experts expect climate change to exacerbate, that’s not the case this year

Colorado fires on 10/22/2020
Colorado's two largest fires in state history seen from space via Landsat 8. The Cameron Peak fire is on the upper right and the East Troublesome fire is on the lower left; the fires have burned more than 190,000 and 200,000 acres, respectively. NASA Earth Observatory

Colorado has experienced one of the worst fire seasons in state history. Colorado’s fires have been burning since July and have now extended far beyond the region’s normal fire season, reports Hillary Rosner for National Geographic.

The two largest fires in the Rocky Mountain state’s history have happened this year—and both are still burning. The Cameron Peak Fire has scorched 208,663 acres and is 64 percent contained, reports Kieran Nicholson of the Denver Post. Meanwhile, the East Troublesome Fire has scorched 193,774 acres and is just 30 percent contained as of October 28, report Janet Oravetz and Alexander Kirk of Colorado broadcast station 9 News NBC. A few days after the East Troublesome first ignited in mid-October, it exploded in size by some 140,000 acres in a single night, per National Geographic.

Last weekend, a welcome blast of wintry weather blanketed the two blazes in up to a foot of snow in places, though fire officials tell the Denver Post “the snow was not a season-ending event” for Colorado’s fires, “but a season-slowing event.” The snow is offering fire crews a reprieve from battling active flames, but logs smoldering underneath the fresh powder could reignite when the snow melts, Cass Cairns, a public information officer assigned to the Cameron Peak fire, tells Cory Reppenhagen of 9 News NBC.

Snowfall typically brings the fire season to a close in Colorado, but in recent years, snow is arriving later and later, extending the fire season. “Usually by mid- to late October in the interior West, fire season is pretty much over,” University of California Los Angeles climate scientist Daniel Swain tells Annie Vainshtein of the San Francisco Chronicle. “In 2020, it is definitely not.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, fire season in the West is now 78 days longer than it was in the 1970s. “We essentially have summer running into winter and we’ve skipped the fall,” Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, tells the Times.

Human-caused climate change is driving this lengthening fire season by exacerbating drought and increasing average temperatures, writes Emma Newburger of CNBC. “Climate change is here and now in Colorado,” Balch tells CNBC. “Warming is setting the stage for a lot of burning across an extended fire season.”

Balch adds that over the past decade the average area burned in Colorado during the month of October has tripled, and that the past 30 days have seen just 10 percent of the typical precipitation. For the first time in eight years, the U.S. Drought Monitor categorized every part of Colorado as abnormally dry or in drought, reports Patty Nieberg for the Associated Press.

As in California, the Colorado landscape’s natural rhythm of burning has been disrupted by decades of fire suppression, loading the crowded forests with fuel that the increasingly hot, drought-prone climate dries into tinder, according to National Geographic.

Another factor driving the damage done by these increasingly common megafires is where people live. Research published this year finds close to 60 million homes were within a mile of a wildfire from 1992 to 2015. In Colorado, population inhabiting fire-prone areas increased by almost 50 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to CNBC. This both places more homes at risk of burning and increases the likelihood of people accidentally or intentionally starting destructive fires.

Fire management practices may improve and it’s possible that fewer people will choose to live in high-risk areas when it comes to fire, but climate change’s inexorable march toward a warmer, drier West appears poised to take the region deeper into a fiery, dangerous new normal.

“Unfortunately, that’s not a trend that’s going to reverse itself anytime soon,” Swain tells the Chronicle. “Right now there’s not a lot of relief, either in the short, medium, or long term.”

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