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Professor: Several factors feeding wildfires, including climate change

Hot temperatures, lack of precipitation, and overgrown forest also contributing
Professor: Several factors feeding wildfires, including climate change
Posted at 2:40 AM, Aug 19, 2020

COLORADO SPRINGS — Four major wildfires are burning thousands of acres across Colorado, and while the official causes remain under investigation, initial reports confirm three out of four were started by humans. Governor Jared Polis has now banned open burning statewide, in an effort to stop more devastating wildfires.

While steps are taken at the Colorado State Capitol, several different natural factors are impacting the blazes. Lieutenant Trevor Leland of the Colorado Springs Fire Department helped explain the complex issue of wildland firefighting. "We do definitely have the potential to have a large wildland incident here within the City of Colorado Springs, or El Paso County in general," said Leland.

Leland has been with the department for almost two decades, and said their wildland mitigation group recently tested the moisture level in local vegetation, also known as fuel. "Just with the amount of fires that we have going on, and the temperatures we've had lately, it seems eerily similar to the Waldo Canyon. So, we kind of did some investigation work and looked back at those fuel moistures, and right now we're sitting very similar to where it was during Waldo Canyon," said Leland.

Those moisture levels mean there is a chance for fires to spark and spread easily in Southern Colorado, as we have seen in other parts of the state. Right now, the Colorado Springs Fire Department only has one crew and engine helping with a Western Slope fire, because they are trying to keep as many resources as they can locally.

"In the State of Colorado, wildfire season really lasts all year long," said Leland. Classically, Leland said wildfire season lasts through the summer months, and ends in September or October. However, large fires still spark up in months like February or March in Colorado.

Some of the factors contributing to the large fires seen this summer include an increase in the amount of people participating in outdoor recreation, like camping. Leland said that's probably what's driven smaller fires in the state. He urged residents to be cautious when outside by following fire restrictions or bans, ensuring chains are not dragging when pulling a trailer or camper, and only smoking cigarettes in safe places while disposing of the butts properly.

"People need to be much more careful right now when they're outdoors," said Leland.

Other problems playing into the growth of the fires are the drought, bark beetles, and vegetation overgrowth. "We put out our fires relatively quick in the past, and so what's that led to is an overgrowth in our forest and our vegetation, which leads to even more stress," said Leland.

Assistant State Climatologist at Colorado Climate Center with Colorado State University, Becky Bolinger, said climate change also affects wildfires. "Not just for Colorado, but all of the Western United States, that when you have warming temperatures, you're going to increase the length of a fire season just by lengthening that warm season and reducing the cold, snow pack season... It's just one of the many factors that we're dealing with," said Bolinger.

Plus, Bolinger said 2020 is another year of a rough drought, which is typically when large fires also occur. "The drought that we're having this year is more widespread and more severe than what we typically experience from year to year," said Bolinger.

Bolinger also elaborated on the difference between natural climate change and anthropogenic climate change. "One of the big things we talk about in climate science is the rate of change. How quickly things are changing. So, we have seen the climate change in the past, but the rate at which we're seeing it change now doesn't match up with the natural system and it much more closely aligns with our man-made activities," said Bolinger.

Christine Biermann is an assistant professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. She said the rate at which climactic changes are occurring is consistent with the short time scale regarding human emissions of greenhouse gases.

Those activities are things like transportation or energy production; essentially anything that enhances greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere. "Climate does change naturally, without human interference or activity, but what we're seeing now is increases in greenhouse gas emissions that are really consistent with changes in climate mostly associated with warming. But broader changes as well, associated with precipitation, snow fall, and other climate factors... The strong inference here is that these changes are caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases," said Biermann.

Biermann drew a correlation between climate change and wildfires. "All of this together, less snow, higher temperatures and less precipitation during the fire season, means that we are having these more frequent and often more intense and more severe fires... When we see fires getting more frequent, and more severe, and fire season longer, that's a way we can really understand climate change in our own backyard," said Biermann.

Bolinger said there are indications showing we will be warmer than normal heading into fall, which she said could lengthen wildfire season in Colorado. Biermann said it is plausible this year will see an extended wildfire season, but she said it really depends on fire conditions, such as wind, precipitation, and temperature.

Leland said our local firefighting agencies are well staffed, and their resources are at a good level right now. However, he said it only takes one fire to alter that, and also noted their resources could change quickly if coronavirus were to strike. The department is taking many precautions to prevent that, such as having several smaller base camps instead of one large one if needed for a fire, wearing protective clothing like face masks, and using electronic document transfers more often.