Western wildfires like the Black Forest Fire in Colorado have been increasing in frequency and duration in recent years, burning far more land and with greater intensity. Scientists say climate change is a major factor.
Firefighters are beginning to get a handle on the massive Black Forest wildfire near Colorado Springs – the most destructive fire in the state’s history.
Cooler temperatures and some rain helped increase the contained area from just five percent Thursday to 30 percent Friday, authorities reported.
Still, the fire has been devastating: Two people killed and 38,000 evacuated, 473 homes destroyed as the blaze moved through 25 square miles of forests and woodland neighborhoods.
The Black Forest Fire in Colorado is part of a pattern in the West: increased construction in the “wildland-urban interface,” as it’s called.
Most homeowners adhere to zoning codes and other regulations requiring them to cut back trees, shrubs, and other natural fuels that can send fires racing through developed areas. Here in the mountains of southern Oregon, crews frequently are seen thinning the forested watershed above town.
Lightning strikes spark most wildfires, and unpaved roads into national forests and wilderness areas provide access to arsonists as well as to hunters and campers. (What started the Black Forest Fire is yet to be determined, but El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa suspects human causation.)
But experts now have little doubt that climate change has become a major factor in the number and intensity of wildfires.
“Today, western forests are experiencing longer wildfire seasons and more acres burned compared to several decades ago,” says Todd Sanford, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “The greatest increase has occurred in mid-elevation Northern Rockies forests, which are having higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier snowmelt. These conditions are linked to climate change.”
“In general, climate change is increasing the risk for longer wildfire seasons and more area burned,” he says.
The UCS reports that wildfires in the western US have been increasing in frequency and duration since the mid-1980s, occurring nearly four times more often, burning more than six times the land area, and lasting almost five times as long.