Ash darkens the sky. The sun is completely blacked out. Everything has an eerie orange glow. Cinders rain down and cover every surface with soot. This isn’t some apocalyptic movie or dystopian future. This is real life on the Colorado Front Range.
2020 has been an active fire year. Four of Colorado’s top five wildfires burned this year. Air quality on the front range has been dire, especially considering the ongoing respiratory pandemic. Now that the two largest fires of the summer are now both sitting at 100% containment, Colorado must face its increasingly flammable future.
The Cameron Peak fire started Aug. 13 in the mountains near Chambers Lake. It smoldered for months until a mid-October wind storm propelled it into becoming the largest wildfire in Colorado history. By the time fire crews completely contained it, on Dec. 3, it had burned up over 200,000 acres.
The East Troublesome fire has an even more explosive story. The fire was reported near Parshall Oct. 14 and contained Nov. 30, but in that short span grew to be the state’s second-largest fire. The fire grew by over 87,000 acres between Oct. 21 and 22, destroyed parts of Grand Lake and threatened Granby and Estes Park.
These fires were a consequence of the long-term drought and pine beetle epidemic that Colorado is facing. According to the official incident report for the East Troublesome fire, between 60-80% of trees burned had already been killed by pine beetles. That, combined with dry and windy conditions, created a perfect storm for fire conditions.
The outlook isn’t good for fires in the future. Many of the areas that were not burned are littered with downed and dead trees. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the entire state of Colorado is experiencing some form of drought. Some of the hardest hit areas are the headwaters of the Colorado and Cache la Poudre rivers — right where the fires started.
These watersheds are vital to the survival of the Front Range. Water from the Colorado river is pumped into the Big Thompson and supplies farms and cities throughout Northern Colorado. The Poudre river provides water and recreation to Fort Collins and Greeley. Because of the fires at their headwaters, flash floods and ash contamination are now more likely.
Ash and smoke blotted out the sky and directly impacted air quality on the Front Range. People were advised to stay inside and avoid exercising. Temperatures under the ash plumes could be 10 degrees lower than under the sun. UNC students, already coping with a deadly respiratory virus, also had to contend with dangerous levels of smoke. Callista Gallegos, a UNC student, had a difficult time facing both at once.
“Half the time I couldn’t go outside because I would not be able to breathe, so I was literally stuck inside and it was awful,” she said.
This year’s fire season is now over, but it contains lessons for the future. Colorado has been grappling with the effects of climate change for a while. Four of Colorado’s top five wildfires burned this year, and all of Colorado’s top ten wildfires have burned since 2000. Whether or not worse things are to come depends entirely on what actions are taken now.