Is Global Warming Causing More and Bigger Fires in Colorado?

High temperatures and dry conditions have caused the outbreak, increased intensity, and rapid spread of numerous wildfires in Colorado. Again. Fires happen, but the number, size, and intensity of wildfires in the western United States has been very high in recent years, and this is caused by global warming.

Global warming causes more rain and more frequent and more severe storm lines. More rain causes more plant growth in otherwise arid regions, and severe storms knock a lot of that vegetation down. This causes more light to get to the ground, so "ladder" vegetation, which enhances fire spread, increases, and the fallen branches add to the fuel that has already been increased by the increased rainfall.

Global warming causes drought, when it isn't busy causing rain. So, areas with increased amounts of fuel that has been configured to increase fire intensity and spreadability become tinder-rich. Along with the drought comes increased spring and summer temperatures, also caused by global warming and this dries out the vegetation making it much more likely for fires to start, grow quickly, spread, and become large.

We've known this for some time, and there is all sorts of evidence to back up the assertion that global warming is the reason for the fire seasons on steroids effect we are seeing now (links to some of this are provided below).

So, yes.

James West has written a very thorough piece demonstrating all these connections, and more, in Mother Jones: How Climate Change Makes Wildfires Worse.

And here's some backup information for you:

  • More Large Forest Fires Linked To Climate Change
  • Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes
  • Climate change causing US wildfire season to last longer, Congress told
  • Climate change and disruptions to global fire activity
  • Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes
  • Potential changes in monthly fire risk in the eastern Canadian boreal forest under future climate change
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    More on Climate Change here.

    Photo Credit: jonathanpercy via Compfight cc

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    Another way it add to fire potential is with warmer winters and early springs, snowpack melts off sooner and increases the lenght of the fire season itself. Instead of being May-Sept., it's now more like March-Oct.

    By jeff allison (not verified) on 13 Jun 2013 #permalink

    There are a few other factors at work in Colorado's Front Range, in additon to climate change. Lack of mixed and low severity fire over the last century has led to forests which are dense with many more trees than their should be. Historically, these forests were much more open, with many meadows. Today, there are very high levels of potential fuel for wildfires. And many yound trees which act as ladders, allowing fire to travel into the canopy of the forest. This, combined with hot dry summers, leads to very large dangerous wildfires.

    "Global warming causes drought, when it isn’t busy causing rain."

    I don't get it. Could you explain it in more detail?

    By Matthias Mayse (not verified) on 14 Jun 2013 #permalink

    There haven't been more fires and they haven't been stronger than at any other point. You're seeing what you want to see.

    By Helter Skelter (not verified) on 14 Jun 2013 #permalink

    in respond to Helter Skelter, I should add The Black Forest fire (summer of 2013) is the most destructive fire in the state's history, and has completely destroyed at least 379 homes, according to the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. At least two people have been killed.

    By Master Mind (not verified) on 26 Jun 2013 #permalink


    Warmer air caused by global warming holds more water, so rainstorms are more intense. But in between the rains, the warmer soils dry out faster. That's the basic idea.

    There's also the fact that rainfall patterns will change. Formerly wet areas may become permanently dryer (although today it's not possible to model regional effects well enough to predict where this will happen.)

    By Chris Winter (not verified) on 30 Jun 2013 #permalink