Three of Colorado’s Wildfires are the Largest in Recorded History for the State

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The western part of the United States has been experiencing a lot of wildfires. There have been record setting fires in both California and Colorado.

With nearly 80 percent of the area experiencing drought, conditions are prime for wildfires to start. All of Colorado is experiencing some level of drought, with many areas at severe or extreme drought levels.

Colorado is experiencing signficant drought this fall.  Map: Unites States Drought Monitor.
Colorado is experiencing signficant drought this fall. Map: United States Drought Monitor.

The lack of adequate rainfall as well as heatwaves in Colorado had left much of the state with dry, brittle vegetation that fueled some of the largest wildfires in the state’s history.

Over 1,000 Wildfires in Colorado in 2020

By August 15, 2020, four major fires were burning uncontained in Colorado: Pine Gulch Fire, Grizzly Creek, Cameron Peak, and Williams Fork fires.

Natural color images from the NOAA-NASA Suomi NPP satellite of fires burning in Colorado.  Image: NASA, August 15, 2020, public domain.
Natural color images from the NOAA-NASA Suomi NPP satellite of fires burning in Colorado. Image: NASA, August 15, 2020, public domain.

There have been 1,019 wildfires reported burning in Colorado in 2020 with several of these fires still burning. Those fires have burned a total of 665,454 acres so far this year.

Of those wildfires, three that burned completely in Colorado this year have broken records for being the largest fires in the state’s history. Prior to this record-setting year, the 2002 Hayman Fire was the largest fire with 137,760 acres burned.

Cameron Fire – Colorado’s Largest Wildfire

As of October 21, the Cameron Peak fire has burned more than 206,000 acres (320 square miles) making it the largest fire in Colorado’s recorded history. The fire started on August 13 on the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests near Cameron Pass and Chambers Lake.

Cameron Peak Fire smoke column on August 13, 2020.  Photo: InciWeb.
Cameron Peak Fire smoke column on August 13, 2020. Photo: InciWeb.

Hot and dry weather, combined with steep terrain, fueled the intensity and spread of the fire. By October 14, the Cameron Peak fire had become the largest forest in Colorado’s history.

A snowfall in September helped to keep the fire stable for a few days. By mid-September, rising temperatures and increased windy conditions were back.

A log burning amid the snow in September.  Cameron Fire photo from InciWeb.
A log burning amid the snow in September. Cameron Fire photo from InciWeb.

As of October 27, 2020, the Cameron Peak Fire is only 64% contained.

East Troublesome Fire

Colorado’s second largest fire only just recently began burning. Started on October 14, 2020, East Troublesome is already the second-largest fire in Colorado’s recorded history with over 190,000 acres (77,000 hectares) to date.

60 mph winds out of the Rocky Mountains accelerated the growth of the East Troublesome Fire, as it grew in a 24 hour period from 30,000 acres to 170,000 acres.

East Troublesome Fire on October 22, 2020.  Landsat image, NASA, public domain.
East Troublesome Fire on October 22, 2020. Landsat 8 image, NASA, public domain.

East Troublesome, as of October 27, is only 20% contained.

The East Troublesome split into two fingers. One of the fingers, the Thompson Zone crossed over the rocky terrain and over the continental divide in Rocky National Park.

A section of the East Troublesome Fire crossed over the continental divide.  Map: InciWeb.
A section of the East Troublesome Fire crossed over the continental divide. Map: InciWeb.

By the morning of October 27, 6-12 inches of snow had fallen in the fire areas. Due to extremely low atmospheric humidity, most of the snow is expected to sublimate.

Sublimation is where frozen water (such as snow) goes directly to water vapor instead of first melting to a liquid state. Since the snow doesn’t melt into the ground, the dry vegetation and soil don’t benefit.

While the October 25 snowfall helped to slow down fire activity, rising temperatures on October 27 along with large downed logs and other fuels are feeding the fire. Officials estimate both the Cameron Peak and the East Troublesome fires will be contained by early November.

Mullen Fire

While some list the Mullen Fire as the third largest fire in Colorado’s history, only a small portion of the fire reaches into the state. The majority of the burn area for the Mullen Fire is in the state of Wyoming in the Medicine Bow National Forest, southwest of Centennial.

The fire started on September 17, 2020, in the Medicine Bow National Forest, southwest of Centennial, Wyoming. The Mullen Fire entered the state of Colorado on October 1, 2020.

Extremely rugged terrain, along with dense vegetation and beetle-killed deadfall, has helped to fuel this massive fire.

Map showing the location of the Mullen Fire.  Source: InciWeb.
Map showing the location of the Mullen Fire. Source: InciWeb.

Pine Gulch Fire

The Pine Gulch Fire is the third largest fire to fully burn within the borders of Colorado. The first started on July 31, 2020 eighteen miles north of Grand Junction with a lightning strike.

Pine Gulch was able to develop into a large fire due to drought-stressed vegetation, unseasonably hot weather and steep terrain.

Firefighters work on the Pine Gulch Fire on August 17, 2020.  Photo: InciWeb.
Firefighters work on the Pine Gulch Fire on August 17, 2020. Photo: InciWeb.

On August 18, the fire was able to grow rapidly by 30,000 acres due to thunderstorm winds up to 40 mph for a three to four hour that night.

Pine Gulch fire was contained on September 15 and burned a total of 139,007 acres. This made it the largest fire in Colorado’s recorded history for a short while until the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires surpassed it.

References

Bradbury, S. (2020, September 14). Cameron peak fire sees no new growth Sunday even as snow melts and temperatures rise. The Denver Post. https://www.denverpost.com/2020/09/14/cameron-peak-fire-latest-news-update-sept-14/

Ingold, J. (2020, October 20). Five charts that show where 2020 ranks in Colorado wildfire history. The Colorado Sun. https://coloradosun.com/2020/10/20/colorado-largest-wildfire-history/

Patel, K. (2020, August 17). Four fires in Colorado. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/147133/four-fires-in-colorado

Patel, K. (2020, October 26). East Troublesome fire spreads to the rockies. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/147452/east-troublesome-fire-spreads-to-the-rockies

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