This year’s historic wildfires in the West

Weather Blog

Pine Gulch Fire – 2020. Credit: Bureau of Land Management

This year’s wildfire season has been historic in all the wrong ways for both California and Colorado. Both states have seen deadly and destructive wildfires this year with two months still left to go.

Below are each state’s top five largest wildfires on record. Notably, both Colorado and California have each seen their largest wildfire in state history this year.

What’s more? Most of the fires on the top five lists have occurred in 2020.

Top 5 largest wildfires in California history:

  1. AUGUST COMPLEX FIRE (August 2020): 1,002,097 burned acres, 160 structures destroyed, 1 death
  2. MENDOCINO COMPLEX FIRE (July 2018): 459,123 burned acres, 280 structures destroyed, 1 death
  3. SCU LIGHTNING COMPLEX FIRE (August 2020): 396,624 burned acres, 22 structures destroyed, no deaths
  4. LNU LIGHTNING COMPLEX FIRE (August 2020): 363,220 burned acres, 1,491 structures destroyed, 5 deaths
  5. CREEK FIRE (September 2020): 322,089 acres burned, 856 structures destroyed, no deaths

*Four of the top 5 largest California wildfires have occurred this year

Top 5 largest wildfires in Colorado history:

  1. CAMERON PEAK FIRE (August 2020): 206,977 burned acres (ongoing), 190 damaged/destroyed buildings
  2. PINE GULCH FIRE (July 2020): 139,007 burned acres, 1 outbuilding destroyed, 3 injured firefighters
  3. HAYMAN FIRE (June 2002): 138,114 burned acres, 6 deaths
  4. EAST TROUBLESOME FIRE (October 2020): 125,000 burned acres (ongoing), “numerous outlying structures” damaged, no deaths
  5. WEST FORK COMPLEX FIRE (June 2013): 109,615 burned acres, no reports of destroyed structures or deaths

* Three of the top 5 largest Colorado wildfires have occurred this year

Climate change connections

Research shows the frequency and intensity of these large-scale wildfires is connected to climate change. More frequent heatwaves, prolonged dry spells and increased soil drought have all contributed to increasing wildfire risk. Here’s how:

  • Longer dry spells and heatwaves help to spread ongoing wildfires
    – Temperatures on Colorado’s Western Slope have increased at more than twice the global average in the last 140 years (more info)
  • Continuous drought results in increased vulnerability of forests
    – As of this week, +20% of Colorado is under exception drought (worst category) with +12% of California under extreme drought (more info)

Land use and forest management also plays a role in wildfire risk.

FURTHER RISK: Research is being done to assess whether mountain bark beetles have any connection to increasing the severity of wildfires. Firefighters have noticed erratic fire behavior in bark beetle-infested forests, but there is no clear relationship between the insects and wildfire outbreaks.

U.S. Global Change Research Program: The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred. (Source: adapted from Abatzoglou and Williams 2016).
Trends in annual number of large fires in the West, all statistically significant at a 10% level except the Snake Plain/Columbian Plateau, Basin and Range and Mediterranean California regions.
(Credit: Fourth National Climate Assessment | Dennison et al)

For more information, visit the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions website and NOAA’s Climate website.

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