One Saturday a few years ago, we packed the in-laws into the back seat, loaded up the dog and headed into the mountains west of Denver. We exited I-70 at the U.S. 40 cutoff for Berthoud Pass and drove past the Winter Park ski resort on the road toward Kremmling.
Before we reached that little mountain town, we took a right-hand turn onto a side road and started exploring. As we drove north we saw huge expanses of dead pine trees; the rugged landscape was covered with gray trees. I remember thinking at the time, “Man, if these forests ever catch fire…”
In the past couple of days those forests have caught fire. The East Troublesome fire, as it has come to be known, started October 14 and so far has burned around 125,000 acres. Last night it exploded and burned through forests at a rate of 6,000 acres an hour. The fire is being driven by high winds, unusually warm temperatures and massive amounts of fuel from dead trees.
This real-time disaster has been years in the making. It offers a clear example of how a changing climate has impacted forests and led to a disastrous wildfire year in the West in 2020.
Nature provided an insect called the pine bark beetle. The beetle’s work focuses on chewing on stressed and diseased pine trees. In normal years, the beetle is active during the warm summer months, then dies off in the frigid winters that characterized the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
But winters in the High Country have been getting warmer. The deep freezes that controlled the pine bark beetle have grown less intense and less frequent. As a result, the beetle has been active more months out of the year and has killed vast swaths of Colorado forestland.
Once dead, the pine trees take on a gray-blue pallor. Some furniture makers like the color and make use of some of the dead trees in interesting ways. Mostly, however, the dead trees have stood on slopes and ridge lines, prime targets for a lightning strike or a careless hiker to set them ablaze.
Down here in Denver this year, we have received around half of our normal amount of precipitation. This part of Colorado is semi-arid, so a typical year sees around 14 inches of precipitation. Kansas City, a few hundred miles east of here, averages more than 40 inches each year. Atlanta averages around 52 inches a year.
A hot and dry year in Colorado and now forests — killed years ago by pine bark beetles that now thrive in a warmer climate — are burning.
Smoke from wildfires burning in the Colorado mountains was particularly bad in my part of town on the afternoon of October 16. This smoke plume, seen from near my house, is from a wildfire burning just north of Boulder.