Record heat, low humidity, and high winds are a dangerous combination in Colorado this week, where four wildfires are now burning, including one that has already destroyed at least 80 homes.
The Black Forest fire, in a wooded rural area northeast of Colorado Springs – and not far from the site of last year's Waldo Canyon fire that destroyed nearly 350 homes and killed two people – is the most concerning, and has prompted the evacuation of more than 7,000 people in the area.
On Wednesday, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said he believes 80-100 homes have been lost, and there is currently no containment of the fire, which has burned about 12 square miles. Sheriff Maketa said he's worried that gusting winds predicted for Wednesday could cause the fire to spread unpredictably, and he compared the blaze to the Waldo Canyon fire.
"One of my worst fears is that people took their chances and it may have cost them their life," Maketa said, urging people to follow evacuation orders. There are currently no reports of anyone missing.
A smaller fire near Royal Gorge Bridge Park – about 60 miles southwest of Black Forest – was also burning Wednesday. It has already destroyed three structures, and forced the evacuation of more than 900 prisoners from a nearby correctional facility, due to concerns about the heavy smoke. That fire was also not contained.
A third fire, sparked by lighting, in Rocky Mountain National Park had grown to about 400 acres by Wednesday, but didn't threaten any structures.
And a fourth fire started Tuesday in Huerfano County, in southern Colorado. The Klikus fire prompted evacuation orders for about 200 homes and has burned about 60 acres. By Wednesday, it was 40 percent contained.
Though much of Colorado, especially in the northern part of the state, had a snowy, wet spring, it doesn't take long for forests to dry out and become virtual tinderboxes, say experts – and the conditions this week aren't helping. The National Weather Service warned that temperatures in the upper 90s, wind gusts over 40 miles per hour, and humidity in the single digits have combined to create "extreme" fire danger in parts of Colorado.
"It doesn't take long for enough fuels to dry enough to carry a fire," says Merrill Kaufmann, an emeritus scientist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, and a former forest scientist with the US Forest Service. "Even if we have wet weather ... it just takes a matter of hours of dry air and warmth to dry [pine] fuels out enough for them to burn rapidly. Then expose those fuels to high wind conditions and high temperatures for a few days, and we have a vast amount of fuel out there that can burn very very quickly."
The bad fires in recent years, especially in the Ponderosa forests of Colorado's heavily populated Front Range, point to a deeper, more systemic problem that no amount of moisture can fix, says Mr. Kaufmann. Fire suppression in those forests, with very few controlled burns, has led to dense forests and a buildup of fuel that historically would have been kept in check by naturally occurring periodic fires.
Kaufmann would like to see more prescribed burns where possible, and tree thinning and biomass removal in populated areas where burns aren't possible, but, he acknowledges,such prevention mechanisms are expensive and difficult, particularly given the vast acreages that need to be dealt with.
Beyond that, there are significant measures individual homeowners can take to protect themselves, he says, citing "defensible space" techniques like reducing fuel around a structure.
In 1993 - after one of the wettest Junes Kaufmann can remember – a wildfire erupted in early July during a hot, dry week right near his cabin. The fire burned within five feet of his cabin, and burned as a crown fire just 100 feet from it, but the cabin was saved thanks to all the work he had done earlier in the spring removing fuel and finding other ways to protect the structure. News reports at the time called it a "miracle cabin," but Kaufmann says the message he wanted to get to homeowners is that there are steps they can take that make a difference.
"We’re not going to avoid these fires, but if everyone took to heart the risk they’re dealing with, this is a sensible thing to do in the long haul," says Kaufmann. "There are no guarantees, but you can sure as heck improve your chances."
The cause isn't yet known for three of the four current Colorado fires, but given hot, dry conditions and so much fuel, even eliminating human error and fires started by people wouldn't get rid of the problem, says Kaufmann. "Everything is loaded and all it takes is a spark," he says. "We're going to have big fires no matter what."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this story