Blowups like East Troublesome more likely as climate warms

Scientists predict megafires like the East Troublesome will become more common in the future, as climate change further dries and warms the region

Meg Soyars
The East Troublesome Fire off of Highway 34 in October of 2020. Scientists say megafires will become bigger and more frequent if annual temperature in that area rises by 2°C.
Meg Soyars/For Sky-Hi News

The East Troublesome Fire seared itself in the memory of all Grand County residents who were there to witness it, just as the landscape is still seared from the flames. The fire tore through the area at unprecedented speeds, barely giving residents of Grand Lake time to evacuate. Many were unprepared for the natural disaster, leaving their homes less than half an hour before flames consumed the area. Two Grand Lake residents died in the fire, which was the second largest in Colorado’s history.

Drier ground and warmer temperatures contributed to the fire’s intensity. East Troublesome only slowed when a foot of snow fell on the flames on Oct. 25. Scientists predict megafires like the East Troublesome will become more common in the future, as climate change further dries and warms the area.

A study published by Global Ecology and Biogeography on April 6 studied the impact of global warming on wildfires. The study, titled “Extreme fire spread events and area burned under recent and future climate in the western USA,” was led by Jonathan Coop, a professor of environment and sustainability at Western Colorado University in Gunnison.

The study’s objectives were to gain new insight into the relationships between extreme single-day fire spread events, annual area burned and fire season climate. Researchers examined satellite data from the Western U.S. during the years 2002 to 2020. They also predicted changes under future warming.

Coop and the other colleagues in the study found that extreme single-day fire events like East Troublesome accounted for 70% of the total area burned from 2002 to 2020. They also found that 441 extreme events in 2020 cumulatively burned 2.2 million hectares across the Western U.S., in contrast to an average of 168 per year that burned 0.5 million hectares annually between 2002 and 2019. The warmness of the climate directly related to the annual number of extreme events and area burned.

The study used computer models to see what would happen if the temperature in that area was raised by 2 degrees Celsius. It found that the annual number of megafire events more than doubled under this climate-warming scenario, with additional doubling of the area burned. It also predicted that the number of fires that occurred in 2020 will occur once every four years in the Western U.S.

The study concluded by stating, “Exceptional fire seasons like 2020 will become more likely, and wildfire activity under future extremes is predicted to exceed anything yet witnessed. Safeguarding human communities and supporting resilient ecosystems will require new lines of scientific inquiry, new land management approaches and accelerated climate mitigation efforts.”

The likelihood of the planet’s temperature rising by 2 degrees is not at all out of the realm of possibility. In fact, scientists predict that it will warm by 1.5 degrees on average by at least 2040. If the population reaches net zero carbon emissions by 2050, this can prevent warming from over 2 degrees. Areas like Grand County are extremely vulnerable to wildfires, as they are in the wildland-urban interface. Residents can prepare now, and learn to mitigate future blowups like the East Troublesome to keep their homes safe.


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