Colorado wildfires — what caused them to be so bad?

Weather

Todd Lovrien looks over the fire damage from the Marshall Wildfire at his sisters home in Louisville, Colo., Friday, Dec. 31, 2021. Tens of thousands of Coloradans driven from their neighborhoods by a wind-whipped wildfire anxiously waited to learn what was left standing of their lives Friday as authorities reported more than 500 homes were feared destroyed. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

BOULDER COUNTY, Colorado (KXAN) — Nearly 1,000 homes have been destroyed and tens of thousands of residents were forced to evacuate Thursday as a wildfire raced through suburban Denver.

It’s important to be mindful of what led to this disaster so we can be prepared for when conditions are primed for another similar event.

The first, and most obvious, factor contributing to the fires was the drought that has plagued the Front Range of Colorado. The NWS Boulder office, which also covers the Denver metro, says that the second half of 2021 (July 1 – December 29) was the driest on record.

Courtesy NWS Boulder Twitter

Within Boulder County, 90% of the region was in either extreme or severe drought. The drought essentially dried up most of the vegetation, turning the Denver area into a tinderbox by December.

Along with the drought, temperatures were well above average for much of the Front Range region. The time frame of Dec. 1-27 was the warmest on record for the Denver area — a record that goes back 150 years.

Courtesy NWS Boulder Twitter

What came next was a strong storm system moving out of the Rockies on Thursday. NWS Boulder issued Winter Storm Warnings for the mountains outside Denver and High Wind Warnings for the foothills, with forecasted wind gusts in excess of 80 mph.

Courtesy NWS Boulder Twitter

Prolonged drought, record warm temperatures and high winds spelled disaster by Dec. 30.

At the time of writing this, surveys were still being conducted on the cause of the fire, but it’s believed that downed powerlines ignited what would become the Marshall Fire just west of the northwest suburb of Superior, Colorado.

The fire swept through a densely populated portion of the Denver suburbs, traveling anywhere from 60-80 mph.

Tens of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate from the towns of Superior, Louisville and Broomfield, as entire neighborhoods were engulfed in flames.

The fires lasted well into the nighttime hours, as winds continued to gust over 50 mph.

It wasn’t until a very welcome and timely snowfall eventually extinguished the fires, and the blazes were no longer considered an immediate threat.

Three people are still missing as of Jan. 2, while the flames destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and damaged more than 100, according to NBC News. These remains currently sit under about six inches of snow, which is expected to melt by Monday. Afterwards, search and rescue teams, along with residents, will continue their search for those missing and valuables.

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