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Wildfires in the western U.S. are scorching thousands of acres, experts say it will only get worse

Why the fires are so bad in 2020 & what's to come
Wildfires in the western U.S. are scorching thousands of acres, experts say it will only get worse
Posted at 8:17 AM, Sep 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-11 10:18:00-04

DENVER -- Colorado is on fire and the rest of the west burns alongside us.

This past week, ash has been raining down on Colorado's cities – smoke and haze are making it hard to breathe and clouds of smog are the new skyline.

“This is the new kind of normal,” said Gregory Simon, associate professor of geography and environmental sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at CU Denver.

Most experts agree, the 2020 fire season is not a historically strong outlier, but rather, a warning that wildfires will become more destructive and more deadly in the years to come.

2020 will already go down as the year two of the four largest wildfires in Colorado history – the Cameron Peak Fire and the Pine Gulch Fire – burned simultaneously.

The amount of land burned in Colorado is almost 300,000 acres – larger than several countries, including Malta and Barbados.

"You could smell it. It's just horrible," said Carri Globensky, a resident of Longmont who has lived in Colorado her entire life. “It’s worse than I’ve ever seen it. You could hold out your hand this past weekend and catch the ash falling from the sky.”

Wildfires in Colorado and throughout the West paint the skies in shocking shades of blood red and bright orange.

A relentless and unprecedented wildfire season that experts warn could be a sign of things to come.

"We expect things to get worse,” said Waleed Abdalati, former chief NASA scientist and current director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and professor at CU Boulder.

Abdalati says rising global temperatures and drought in many western states are a lethal combination for dry forests.

"The pump is primed now for more fires, bigger fires, more intensely burning fires," Abdalati said.

Simon agrees.

“Fires are already demonstrating that they are becoming more frequent, more intense," Simon said.

Simon indicated there is no longer a wildfire season, but rather a continual risk year-round.

"The frequency of them, the size of them, the intensity of them and the way in which they can occur all year long,” he said.

"The extremes that we're seeing will likely be even more so,” Abdalati said. “I won't say more violent and dramatic, but more frequent occurrences. There needs to be an effort to prepare for and understand what's coming."