WeatherWeather Science


The neverending wildfire season in Colorado 2020

Posted at 2:53 PM, Nov 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-21 13:29:50-05

The nerve-wracking Bear Creek Fire comes on the heels of a long and disastrous wildfire season in Colorado this year.

The top 3 largest wildfires in state history burned this year, with the Cameron Peak Fire at 208,913 acres, East Troublesome Fire burning 193,812 acres, and the Pine Gulch Fire at 139,007 acres.

In addition to the amount of acreage burned, the fact that the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome burned intensely well into October is unusual, according to Peter Goble, a service climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center.

He notes that prior to 2020, the time of biggest risk for large wildfires is in June.

It is worth noting that wildfires are possible year-round in Colorado. The season usually begins as temperatures warm and fuels dry out in Spring and summer. The high country will almost always see the end of wildfire season when snowpack begins to stack up. But, in the grasslands of the eastern Colorado plains, winter is dry and windy. Wildfires are possible year-round, generally only in grassland areas.

Weather-wise, there were several variables that piled on to lead to this terrible season. First, drought began to increase and expand from a dry spring into a warm and dry summer. The hot dry weather peaked when August became the warmest in state history. On top of that, the North American Monsoon, which brings late summer rain to Colorado was very weak and almost nonexistent this year. On a good monsoon year, this rain can suppress the large fires that start in summer. That did not happen this year and fires blazed on.

Goble adds that we shouldn't expect the "wicked" fire season of 2020 every year. But he explains there is strong evidence that the acreage burned in the state will continue to increase as temperatures increase. He notes that in the 1980s, the largest fire in state history was 13,000 acres. Since then, five separate fires have burned over 100,000 acres each since 2002. Cameron Peak being the first 200,000+ acre fire in history.