Colorado’s worsening drought could make 200,000-acre wildfire seasons more commonplace

With more than half of Colorado in a state of severe to exceptional drought — its driest conditions since 2002 — fire has found opportune conditions to scorch a path this year across more than 200,000 acres in the state, torching dozens of buildings and prompting hundreds of people to evacuate.
Snowpack levels in the southwest corner of the state, where the 416 fire has burned more than 54,000 acres north of Durango since June 1, were that area’s second-worst ever, Goble said.
And the mid-May melt-out from higher elevations in the San Juan Mountains happened earlier than ever, he said.
But he said there is reason to hope that the worst is over, as expected July rains should start to provide relief, especially to the southern half of the state, hardest hit by the arid conditions.
“I am expecting that the fire danger of the past week is at or near the peak we’ll see this season,” he said.
The state has crossed that threshold three times, the first time in 2002, but hadn’t even reached half that amount in any year during the three decades prior, according to data from the Colorado State Forest Service and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.
Jennifer Balch, assistant professor of geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said there is an undeniable link between both a warming climate and increased aridity with wildfires that are mounting in scope and frequency across the American West.
Where there were 20 large fires a year then, since 2010 well over 100 large fires each year are burning.” And with more people moving into Colorado and building new homes where once there was quiet forest land or empty prairie, Balch said, the fire danger goes up.
“When we develop into an area, we add fuel because we’re building homes and putting in propane tanks, and we’re opening up forest that used to be sheltered from the wind,” said Kodas, who wrote the 2017 book “Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame.” “And we have a large increase in the number of fire starters.” A man from Denmark who is in the United States illegally was arrested last week in connection with starting the largest current blaze in the state — the 100,000-plus-acre Spring Creek fire in Costilla and Huerfano counties.
“However, we can incentivize building in places with less risk of severe fire that can be defended and we can educate the public about the increasing likelihood of more big fires in the years ahead so that people can be ready.”

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