The rare December blazeThat blaze that ripped through Boulder County in Colorado at a frightening pace this week may not seem so unusual in the near future, wildfire experts warn. Climate change sets the stage to increase the risk of wildfires.
Wildfires are not common in winter, especially in Boulder County where the ground is usually moist from snow.
However, Colorado has been experiencing severe drought in recent months. Denver, July 1 through December 29, Recorded its lowest level of precipitation by more than an inch, with snowfall at record-low levels too. Boulder, which is known for its. GetThere were approximately 30 inches of snow between September and December. The fire started on the day that only 1 inch of snow was left.
Combine that with an unseasonably warm fall, and the ground had significantly less moisture in it than it normally would — creating perfect conditions for a fire to flourish.
“Everything is kind of crispy,” said Keith Musselman, a snow hydrologist and assistant research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. “In addition to the extreme drought, just 1- or 2-degree warmer days can really dry out the landscape quite a bit more, so everything is that much drier and flammable.”
Officials claim wind gusts as high as 105 mph set off the flames, quickly destroying 500-1000 homes, and leaving residents with very little time to evacuate.
Even though gusts of this magnitude are unusual for this time of year they cannot be directly linked to climate change, said Daniel Swain of UCLA and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy.
He stated that climate change was the reason the ground was primed to allow wind-whipped fires, and wildfire season could be extended in other areas.
“Climate change is clearly making the pre-conditions for wildfires worse across most fire-prone regions of the world,” he said.
In addition to the time of year, Colorado’s fire stood out for another reason, said Philip Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana. Few fire as many structures.
“Unfortunately, this illustrates one of the worst-case scenarios,” he said of the fact that the blaze burned through densely populated neighborhoods. “These are these high-wind events under these extremely dry conditions, and you’re basically crossing your fingers and hoping there isn’t a human-caused ignition in the wrong place.”
Experts say there are two ways to combat climate change. One is to engage in discussions and actions within communities and households over the long-term, and the other is to not assume that certain areas are immune to fires in the short-term.
“We as a society need to recognize that wherever we’re living in the West with vegetation is a fire-prone environment,” Higuera said. “This can happen anywhere.”
He said that this might include changing the construction of homes to make them fireproof or changing infrastructure to ensure that power lines are buried and shut off during high winds.
Initial suspicions were that a downed powerline was the cause of the fire in Colorado on Thursday, but officials later stated that an investigation had shown that there wasn’t. They stated that they were still investigating.
Swain stated that while fires are more common throughout the year, winter will not be a time of great fire activity.
“I still don’t think winter is ever going to be peak fire season in the West,” he said. “But it used to be a fire non-season, and I really don’t think that’s the case anymore.”
Elizabeth Chuck is a reporter at NBC News. She focuses on mental and health issues, especially those that affect women and children.