Devastating fires in Colorado cap off a year of awful drought across the US. Dry conditions helped set the stage for blazes that scorched hundreds of homes and forced tens of thousands to evacuate just ahead of New Year’s Eve.
The fires have been raging through suburbs near Denver since December 30th. Strong winds fanned the flames and knocked out power. About 6,000 acres and at least 500 homes had burned by Friday morning. But there were no casualties, which Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle called “miraculous” given the severity of the fire in a press briefing. Families had “minutes” to evacuate their homes, Governor Jared Polis said.
More than two-thirds of Colorado’s land is experiencing “severe” drought, according to the US Drought Monitor. Officials suspect that downed power lines might have sparked the inferno, a problem that becomes more dangerous when a dry landscape provides plenty of tinder.
One of the many factors that lead to the devastating wildfire today is the recent record dryness. For all periods from Jul 1st to Dec 29th (essentially the second half of the year), Denver has been the driest on record by over an inch. Snowfall is at record low levels, too. #COwx pic.twitter.com/8OriOBPyTs— NWS Boulder (@NWSBoulder) December 31, 2021
Experts expected a particularly bad fire season this year. The potential for “significant fire activity” was “above normal” for nearly all of the West at some point this year, according to a February outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center. By the end of the year, more than 7.8 million acres burned across the US — five percent more than the 10-year average of 7.4 million.
What’s typical for the US is changing because of the climate crisis. Severe fires have become much more frequent in the western US over the past few decades with hotter, drier seasons. On top of that, fire season — which used to run roughly from May to November — no longer seems to let up. Colorado’s blazes illustrate this, coming unusually late in the year.
The fires in Colorado are just one catastrophic symptom of drought across the US. The Colorado River, a lifeline for 25 million people who rely on it for water, faced an unprecedented water shortage this year. An official shortage was declared for the first time at the US’ largest reservoir, Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead, in August. Water levels at the reservoir dipped to a historic low in June. Mandatory water cuts will kick in for Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico starting January 1st. Arizona will face the steepest cuts, which are expected to hit farmers the hardest. In California, drought cut into the state’s available hydroelectricity — putting even more stress on a power grid that’s struggled to keep the lights on for many residents whenever fire weather picks up.
Heavy rain and record snow are now closing out the year in California. That’s been somewhat helpful in easing water shortages, but it’s still not enough to end the drought. Climate change, no surprise, is behind the rise in extreme weather swings. It intensifies the world’s water cycle, says a landmark climate report published this year. So we’ll probably want to brace for another wild weather year in 2022.