On Monday, Denver set a new record for the earliest date to ever hit 100 degrees. In addition to the heat wave, high winds and low humidity have stoked a series of wildfires along the state’s heavily populated Front Range. Since erupting Tuesday, the fires have already destroyed scores of homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents as federal firefighters and air tankers were rushed to the state.
The most destructive and worrisome fire broke out north of Colorado Springs, where last year the Waldo Canyon Fire — the worst in state history — consumed 346 homes and caused $353 million in damage. The Black Forest Fire broke out shortly after noon Tuesday, and had burned about 8,000 acres by this morning, damaging or destroying at least 100 homes and forcing the evacuation of about 2,500 homes and businesses, encompassing more than 7,000 people across a 24,000 acre area.
To the south, near Cañon City, the 3,800-acre Royal Gorge fire is threatening a popular tourist attraction, the Royal Gorge Bridge over the Arkansas River, and has prompted state corrections officials to evacuate about 800 prisoners from a prison facility.
Other smaller fires were burning in Rocky Mountain National Park and in southern Colorado.
Federal assets were being deployed, including a heavy air tanker based in Albuquerque, and helicopters from military bases in Colorado including Fort Carson outside of Colorado Springs.
The past decade has seen a sharp increase in the number of acres burned by wildfires. In 2012, 2007 and 2008 more than 9 million acres were burned, and the half dozen worst fire years since 1960 have taken place since 2000. A recent Department of Agriculture report predicts that the acreage burned by wildfires will double by 2050 to about 20 million acres annually.
The report’s findings are in line with previous studies on climate change’s relation to fire risk: a 2012 study found that wildfire burn season is two and a half months longer than it was 40 years ago, and that for every one degree Celsius temperature increase the earth experiences, the area burned in the western U.S. could quadruple.
At a briefing this morning on the Black Forest Fire, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said the blaze was at zero percent containment. “It’s still a very hot and active fire area,” he said, adding that a federal firefighting incident command team would take charge of the fire today.