How climate change preys on Colorado for a rare December wildfire

Fire crews work to put out a fire at a home burned during the Marshall Fire in Boulder County on December 31, 2021 in Louisville, Colorado.

RJ Sangosti | MediaNews Group | Post by Denver via Getty Images

Rare Brilliant December Wildfire experts are warning that the tearing of Boulder County, Colorado, at a frightening rate this week may not be unusual going forward, as climate change sets the stage for many things.

Wildfires have historically not occurred in winter, especially in areas like Boulder County, where the ground is often moist from snow.

But in recent months, Colorado has experienced a severe drought. From July 1 to December 29, 2021, Denver recordIts lowest rainfall was more than an inch, with snowfall at a record low. Meanwhile, Boulder, usually look about 30 inches of snow between September and December, receiving only one inch during that period prior to the date of the fire.

Combine that with an unseasonably warm autumn and the ground has considerably less moisture than usual – creating the perfect conditions for flames to thrive.

“Everything is brittle,” said Keith Musselman, a snow hydrologist and research assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Apart from extreme drought, just days that are a degree or two warmer can really dry out the landscape a bit more, so everything is drier and more flammable.”

Officials said gusts of up to 105 mph fanned the blaze, rapidly destroying between 500 and 1,000 homes and giving residents barely time to evacuate.

While gusts of that magnitude are somewhat unusual for this time of year, they cannot be, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California Los Angeles and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy. directly related to climate change.

Still, he said, climate change is certainly the reason the ground is ready for wind-blown fires, and other areas could experience similarly prolonged wildfire seasons.

“Climate change is clearly making pre-conditions for wildfires worse in most fire-prone regions of the world,” he said.

In addition to the time of year, the Colorado fires stand out for another reason, says Philip Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana. Few write as many structures as this one did.

“Unfortunately, this illustrates one of the worst-case scenarios,” he said of the fact the fire raged through densely populated residential areas. “These are high winds in these extremely dry conditions, and you’re basically running through your fingers and hoping there’s no man-made ignition in the wrong place.”

Problem solving

According to experts, the solution has two directions: Attacking climate change through actions and discussions in communities and households in the long term and in the short term, without assuming that a certain area is not burnt.

“We as a society need to realize that anywhere we are living in the West with vegetation is a fire-prone environment,” says Higuera. “This could happen anywhere.”

That could mean changing the way homes are built or reinforced to make them more fireproof, or changing infrastructure so that power lines get buried or shut down during high winds, he said.

A house caught on fire due to a wind-driven wildfire is forced to evacuate from the Superior suburb of Boulder, Colorado, December 30, 2021 in this still image obtained from a social media video.

Eric English | via Reuters

Officials initially suspected a collapsed power line was the cause of Thursday’s fire in Colorado but later said the investigation had found no problems. They said they are continuing to investigate the cause.

While fires are likely to become more common year-round, Swain said winter will still not be a time of high fire activity.

“I still don’t think winter will be the peak fire season in the West,” he said. “But it used to be a non-seasonal fire, and I really don’t think so anymore.”


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