Climate change is helping to fuel Colorado wildfires, experts say

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FORT COLLINS, Colo. (KDVR) — The explosive growth of the East Troublesome Fire is more evidence of climate change according to state climatologist Russ Schumacher.

“To see huge fires like this in late October is far beyond anything we’ve ever observed in Colorado before,” said Schumacher, who serves as the director of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University.

While it might be easy to blame dry and dead trees on pine beetles, Schumacher notes the beetles have flourished because mild winters have prevented them from being killed off.

On top of that, Colorado is in a severe drought.

“The weather station at Grand Lake is from July 1 to now the driest on record for that period of time by quite a bit. They’ve had less than an inch of rain over that time period. Normally you’d see about 7 inches,” said Schumacher.

“We’re in unprecedented situations right now,” said Camille Stevens-Rumann, a fire ecologist with Colorado State University.

Stevens-Rumann was once a Hot Shot firefighter who fought wildfires in New Mexico.

Now she studies how fires impact forest ecology.

“We may have had earlier snow events by this point. We also probably wouldn’t have had the length of time that we had all summer to let those fuels dry out,” said Stevens-Rumann.

In addition, she said wildfires and a changing climate make area burn scares less conducive to regrowth.

That’s concerning because trees capture carbon in the air which helps slow climate change.

“Growing evidence that these forests are going to have a harder time recovering,” said Stevens-Rumann. “We definitely are not going to see the same carbon storage capacity that those forests had last year for a long time to come.”

It’s a dangerous circle according to Stevens-Rumann because less trees mean more carbon dioxide in the air which accelerates climate change which helps fuel wildfires.

“This year is rewriting the record books again because we’ve seen  now three of our four biggest fires in state history this year,” said Schumacher.

After talking to Schumacher, the East Troublesome Fire continued to grow, meaning all three of Colorado’s biggest wildfires in state history are burning at the same time.

The Cameron Peak Fire ranks first, at a size of nearly 207,000 acres burned so far. As of about 5 p.m. on Thursday, the East Troublesome Fire is second at more than 170,000 acres. The Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction is now the third largest at 139,000 acres.

The Hayman Fire burned 137,760 acres in 2002 and before this year, was the largest is Colorado history.

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