The Future’s Fires Are Raging Today, Torching Scientists’ Earlier Predictions

Oct 30, 2020

Scientists say the size and intensity of wildfires that we’re seeing today is alarming because it’s what they were predicting would happen 30 years down the road – not right now. 

Researchers in California say this year’s wildfire destruction was expected to happen much later this century. Instead, the number of scorched acres in the state doubled from 2018. 

And for parts of the Mountain West, California’s megafires may be a bellwether.  

“We’ve seen large fires break out in August, which is pretty late, and then to see big fires breaking out here in October and seeing the ongoing fires persisting and growing much bigger here into the fall is just not the sort of thing we’ve ever seen before,” said Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist.   

Colorado had also never seen a 200,000-acre blaze before this year’s Cameron Peak Fire. That’s twice the size of the city and county of Denver and still burning.  

Schumacher says the conditions for more extreme fires are becoming more frequent and drawn out. And while land use practices and forest management legacies are part of the problem, climate change is undoubtedly linked, too.  

States largely spared from extreme wildfires this year – like Idaho – are also expected to enter a new era of destructive megafires. 

A large portion of the Mountain West is experiencing severe to extreme drought, which is linked to an increased fire risk. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.