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Are Colorado's wildfires caused by global warming?

The wildfires devastating Colorado have been linked to a streak of unusually hot weather, but they that does not necessarily mean that global warming is the culprit. 

By Stephanie PappasLiveScience Senior Writer / June 28, 2012

The Waldo Canyon fire burns off the southern border of the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado in this Tuesday photo. Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for all housing residents of the academy as this fire continues to spread.

Mike Kaplan/US Air Force photo/Handout/Reuters



Devastating wildfires scorching the state of Colorado are linked to a nasty streak of hot weather across the central part of the country, but it's tougher to link them definitively to global warming, climatologists say.

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Earlier research has found broad trends linking earlier spring weather, rising temperatures and increased forest fires, suggesting that climate change may play a role in fires like the Waldo Canyon blaze outside of Colorado Springs, which has burned more than 18,000 acres and consumed about 300 homes here. But linking a specific fire to the long-term trend of global warming isn't possible.

"You can't say it's climate change just because it's an extreme condition," said Colorado state climatologist Nolan Doesken. So far, Doesken told LiveScience, the spring of 2012 looks much like the spring of 1910, when warm temperatures hit early. That year, he said, was a bad one for fires. [Images: Devastating Colorado Fires]

Fire weather

The Waldo Canyon fire began on June 23 and has ripped through neighborhoods west of Colorado Springs, destroying a yet-unreleased number of homes. Just 130 miles (209 kilometers) to the north, the High Park wildfire outside of Fort Collins is well into its second week and has burned more than 87,000 acres. That fire killed one 62-year-old woman who was caught in her home.

Other significant fires in the state include a 300-acre blaze 1.5 miles (2.4 km) outside of Boulder, a 9,168-acre blaze near Mancos in the southwestern part of the state and a 23,400-acre wildfire in rugged terrain in the San Juan National Forest, also in the southwestern part of the state.

The immediate driver of these fires is a lack of moisture and a ridge of heat that has settled over the central United States, said New Jersey state climatologist Dave Robinson, who also directs the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University. After record snowpack last year, the Rocky Mountains did a 180 this year, Robinson said, seeing little moisture and early snowmelt.

"March and April are supposed to be your snowy months [in Colorado], and they weren't," Robinson told LiveScience. "Thus, the fire danger."

Meanwhile, a high-pressure system in the central part of the country is preventing cloud formation and allowing the sun to bake the ground, heating things up. On Tuesday (June 26) alone, 251 daily heat records were broken across the nation, according to the National Climatic Data Center. In the past week, more than 1,000 new daily heat records were put on the books. [The World's Weirdest Weather]

Climate change connection

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