Colorado scientists warn of links between climate change and worsening wildfires

Flames engulf Williams Fork Range Thursday afternoon, June 28, near Silverthorne.
Hugh Carey / Summit Daily News

Colorado residents grew accustomed to the sight of smoke this summer as a faint haze from wildfires across the state formed an ominous backdrop against the mountains on the Western Slope.

More than 175,000 acres of the state have burned this season, including three blazes — the Spring Creek Fire (108,045 acres) near Ft. Garland, the 416 Fire (54,129) near Durango and the Mile Marker 117 Fire (42,795) near Pueblo — that all ranks within the top 10 most destructive fires in Colorado history by acres burned. It may be easy to chalk 2018 up as a fluky year, with less than average snowpack and droughts throughout the state, but some local scientists have a different theory: This is the new norm.

“This will be the norm,” said Dr. Julie Korb, professor of biology at Fort Lewis College and expert in forest and fire ecology. “People ask, when is this going to stop? The thing to realize is that this is becoming the norm across the entire western United States.”

Korb was one of three scientists who participated in a teleconferenced panel on wildfires held Thursday morning and hosted by the Environmental Colorado Research & Policy Center. The panel, which also included Dr. Deborah Kennard of Colorado Mesa University and Dr. Heidi Steltzer of Fort Lewis College, focused on the links between wildfires and climate change in Colorado, exploring issues such as snowmelt, fuels mitigation and the potential for change.

According to Kennard, the links between climate change and growing fire danger can be observed dating back decades.

“There have been some large western-wide studies using Forest Service records of fires for decades, and they show a distinct pattern,” said Kennard. “It’s not just Colorado; you have to have a lot of data to show statistically the links between climate change and any landscape. But there have been several studies that show that climate change is responsible for a little more than half of the increases in fuel dryness since 1970 and it’s responsible for doubling the area burned since 1984. The number of days of the fire season has even increased over time. The pattern is similar throughout the west in general.”

One of the issues is the reduction in snowpack over the last several decades. Since the 1950s, snowpack in Colorado has fallen 20 percent across statewide monitoring sites, according to Steltzer, an expert in botany and snowmelt. Another 10-60 percent drop is forecasted over the next 50 years, primarily affecting lower elevations.

The lack of snow means huge opportunity for fires. Steltzer noted that when an area is facing a drought, any rain it gets is likely to run over the land rather than into it, meaning plants are parched and ready to burn.

“With shorter and more chaotic winters we’re seeing the snow melt earlier and faster, and we’re left with dry earth,” said Steltzer. “At the start of 2018, 93 percent of Colorado lands were rated as extremely dry. They were a tinderbox waiting for a spark, and in June we found many sparks. By June’s end, Colorado was home to the largest number of active wildfires in the country.”

The greatest difference can be seen in higher elevation forests. While lower elevation forests aren’t typically limited by snowmelt and get hot enough to burn every summer, higher elevation forests historically don’t. But as higher elevation forests dry and warm due to climate change, a forest that may have once burned every hundred years could become vulnerable every year.

“The warmer temps will lead to drier conditions,” said Kennard. “Which means longer fire seasons and bigger fires. What we saw this summer is likely to increase in the future.”

According to Korb, the immediate solution comes in the form of fuels mitigation projects and changing the way we think about fire suppression. Mitigation efforts and fuel breaks can help prevent catastrophic fires, similar to what we saw in Silverthorne with the Buffalo Mountain Fire earlier this year. Part of the reason Colorado is in such a dire situation with regards to wildfires is because of a historical propensity to meet fires with suppression.

“We tend to think of fires as bad things,” said Steltzer. “But there’s a lot of good fires, and ecosystems evolve with some type of fire. We should be trying to create conditions that allow fires to be a natural component to allow forests to become more resistant and resilient.”

Still, if the issue is climate change, experts warn that larger steps will have to be taken in order to change the trajectory of fire danger in Colorado and the rest of the western United States in the coming years.

The experts all called for leadership at a national level to help address the links between climate change and the growing danger of wildfires, but also insisted that individuals take it upon themselves to find ways to reduce their carbon footprint and use less fossil fuels.

“We need to challenge ourselves to think about whether the droughts, the fires and the floods are due to chance alone,” said Steltzer. “Is the natural cycle of wet or dry years coming up tails instead of heads, and tails and tails again while it gets consistently hotter and consistently drier? It’s possible, but it’s improbable. And while this is debated, the Colorado we know is changing.”

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