A climate study released Tuesday suggests that increasing high temperatures and decreasing snowpack mean that the likelihood of fires the size of the Waldo Canyon blaze will increase sevenfold.
The report comes as Colorado Springs grapples with proposed new fire codes aimed at curtailing damage to homes if another wildfire burns into foothills neighborhoods. Outside the Waldo Canyon burn scar, there are thousands of El Paso County residents who live in wildfire danger zones that are at risk if another fire occurs in the region.
The report, "The Age of Western Wildfires" by the scientific research group Climate Central, is the result of 42 years of forest observation in the West, with data pulled from the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, among other national land management agencies. Since 1970, when the data collection began, the average number of large wildfires in Colorado has doubled, and the fire season is now 75 days longer than it was then, the report said.
"On top of that, climate change has caused clear increases in spring and summer temperatures, and more heat leads to more drying," Richard Wiles, director of research for Princeton, N.J.-based Climate Central, said Tuesday. "This heating and drying out of the landscape starts earlier and continues into the fall. When you combine all those factors, you get increased wildfires."
Like the other 10 Western states examined in the study, Colorado's spring and summer temperatures have been on the rise and several record highs were recorded this year. After watching temperature increases since the 1970s, Climate Central reports that for every 1.8 degree increase, the size of wildfires in Western states could quadruple.
The number of large fires in the West also has increased dramatically, the report said. The number of fires greater than 10,000 acres has increased by seven times per year; the number of fires greater than 25,000 acres increased by five times per year. Over the past decade, wildfires on Forest Service lands, such as the Waldo Canyon fire, have burned more than 2 million acres, an area larger than Yellowstone National Park.
The 2012 fire season, which has two months to go, is one of the worst on record, the report said.
The Waldo Canyon fire, which started west of Colorado Springs on June 23, became the most destructive in state history, burning 18,247 acres and at least 345 homes and killing two people. The rash of fires across Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and now Wyoming and Montana has brought the issues of maintaining the nation's largely unhealthy and dry forests to the forefront. Last month, Sen. Mark Udall chaired a senate hearing at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to discuss how the Forest Service works to prevent large forest fires by thinning trees and starting prescribed burns.
Until this year, that thinking prevailed. But according to Climate Central, it has also created a fire-deficit -- many acres of forest haven't experienced large, but often ecologically necessary, "megafires" in more than a century. Those forests are ready to burn, Wiles said.
"In the past 100 years, there have been a lot less fires because of the way we have suppressed and landscaped," Wiles explained. "Ecologically our presence on the landscape has altered the natural pattern of fire. And we're at the point where we've really loaded that in one direction -- the need for fire."
For some Colorado Springs residents, preparing for another large fire is a difficult concept to grasp. Last week, Colorado Springs Fire Department Fire Marshall Brett Lacey talked to Mountain Shadows residents at a meeting called to address the new fire codes, but he encountered resistance from homeowners who didn't see the need in a burned area.
"Why are they having us pay more when it's not going to happen again?" one resident asked Lacey.
But it can happen again, Lacey said. When the fire raged into Colorado Springs on June 26, incinerating hundreds of homes, it moved so quickly that it left underground root systems undamaged.
"That's why they say it can happen again, because the Gambel oak could grow back," Lacey said.
To prove his point, he flashed a slide showing monstrous black plumes rising over a landscape of burning Gambel oak.
As more Coloradans build homes in the forests -- or what is called the wildland urban interface -- the term "megafire" takes on a new meaning. El Paso County has more people living in this dangerous "red zone" than any other county in the state, according to data calculated by the Rocky Mountain I-News Network. According to I-News, the county has 278,334 people living in the red zone, making wildfires in the area a greater threat to property and lives.
"Mount St. Francis used to be in the mountains, but now we have built out there," Colorado Springs wildland fire mitigation administrator Christina Randall said last week. "We're seeing larger, more catastrophic fires. This is a trend."
The list of factors pointing to increasing wildfire danger goes on and on -- low snowpack, drought, heat, fire-starved ecosystems, more people moving into dry forests -- and they all came together this year, Wiles said.
"Those all combine to produce what we saw. (There will be) more big fires in the West," Wiles said. "There's just no doubt about that."