The Colorado Wildfires: How Climate Change is Changing Wildfires

2020 Colorado Wildfire. Photo by Malachi Brooks, via Unsplash.

In 2022, as of early February, there have already been 2,388 fires that have burned a total of 40,822 acres across the U.S., surpassing a 10-year average of 1,924 fires and 38,501 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In 2021, the state of California faced unprecedented fires that raged throughout the year, burning a total of 2.5 million acres and changing officials’ definition of the “fire season” to a “fire year.”

One of the most recent catastrophic wildfires occured on December 30th of last year, when a suburban neighborhood in Boulder County, Colorado experienced one of the state’s worst fires in history. This wildfire was shocking to the area, which had just had snow storms a few weeks earlier. The event burned about 6,200 acres, caused at least one confirmed death, and destroyed almost 1,100 homes, prompting over 35,000 people to evacuate the community and surrounding areas. Many believe the fire was able to start and spread so quickly due a severe drought in the area that had lasted through the summer into December.  

Catastrophic wildfires require a combination of environmental conditions including high temperatures, low humidity, decreased rainfall, dried flora, and fast wind speeds, as explained by Kasha Patel for the Washington Post. In the example of the December fire, a combination of dangerous weather conditions from the recent drought, heatwave, and high wind speeds made the wildfire so deadly and devastating for the Colorado community. A report from the National Weather Service on that day showed severe winds up to 100 mph fanned the wildfire out into its surroundings and increased damage to already devastated homes and businesses.

While meeting these exact natural requirements may seem infrequent, rising global temperatures are actually creating the perfect environment for wildfires in many parts of the country. 

As heat waves become longer and more intense due to greenhouse gasses trapping heat in the atmosphere, forests and vegetation begin to dry out. From this, two main problems occur. First, as postdoctoral researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University Jane Wilson Baldwin explains, a feedback loop is caused when dried land is unable to cool itself through evaporation and makes the surface even hotter. 

Formation of a heat wave. Photo by U. S. National Weather Service/National Ocean Service.

Since a heat wave is a high-pressure system that traps air in one place as it warms, the air in that bubble becomes hotter and hotter over time with the added effect of ground heating. These dried out environments will become even more susceptible to fires if extreme heats reduce the moisture in the vegetation to less than 30%, creating a perfect ignition fuel. Hot areas with ample dried out plant life become the exact geography where wildfires thrive. All it takes at that point could be one small accidental spark for another devastating fire to begin.  

The Colorado Wildfire ended a year full of climate disasters, with Nina Lakhani, a climate justice reporter for The Guardian, reporting in January that at least 650 people died in the United States in 2021 from various natural disasters such as heatwaves, hurricanes, wildfires and flooding. In order to avoid these natural disasters from devastating our communities, it is critical to remember that the true problem comes directly from the global climate crisis. 

This article was edited by Ashley Schefler and Anagha Aneesh.