Like other parts of Western USA, the state of Colorado isn’t unfamiliar with damaging wildfires. In fact, the problem has worsened over the past two decades. Climate change is causing drier, warmer and longer summers, increasing the chances of wildfires occurring and leading to more devastating damage. Some of the largest wildfire events to have ever happened in the state have taken place over the past 20 years. 2020 was a particularly devastating year in terms of wildfires, with at least three massively catastrophic events. In this article, we’ll go over the 10 biggest wildfires in Colorado throughout history.
The Bridger Fire
Area affected: 46,612 acres burned
Duration: June 10-22, 2008
The Bridger fire started at a military base in the Red Canyon area. The fire mainly affected grasslands in the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site. A combination of favorable factors, including cool weather, higher humidity, and precipitation aided the containment of this fire within two weeks. However, it already destroyed more than 46,000 acres within that short period. Officials claim that a lightning strike started the fire.
416 and Burro Complex Fire
Area affected: 54,129 acres (84.5 square miles)
Duration: June 1 to July 31, 2018
This combination of two forest fire incidents burned a combined area of over 54,000 Acres. Over 1,300 people had to be evacuated, and the Purgatory Ski Resort had to be closed down. This fire incident also affected parts of the San Juan National Forest and US 550. The fire is believed to have been caused by a spark from a coal train belonging to the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and the company was sued for $25 million in damages.
Missionary Ridge Fire
Area affected: 71,739 acres (112 square miles)
Duration: June 9 – July 18, 2002
The Missionary Ridge Fire occurred in Southwest Colorado during an unusually dry year and spread really quickly. Experts believe that sparks from a car dragging its muffler caused the incident. The fire covered an area of 6,500 acres on the first day alone. It also destroyed more than 46 homes in the area and led to the death of one firefighter.
High Park Fire
Area affected: 87,284 acres (136 square miles)
Duration: June 9 – 30, 2012
The HIgh Park fire burned in the city of Fort Collins in Northern Colorado. It was the largest forest fire in the year 2012 and created a lot of other notable fire incidents. Investigations revealed that the fire might have been sparked by lightning in the foothills of Fort Collins before it quickly spread, destroying 259 homes and killing one woman. At the time it occurred, the High Park fire was the most costly wildfire event in Colorado.
Spring Creek Fire
Area affected: 108,045 acres (168 square miles)
Duration: June 27 – Sept. 10, 2018
The Spring Creek, which burned for over a month, started near Fort Garland and La Veta in the Southern Colorado area. The fire was caused by an unextinguished flame from a fire pit. A man from Denmark now stands trial for cooking over a fire pit despite a fire ban. The blaze destroyed more than 140 structures and led to the evacuation of an entire town in the affected area.
West Fork Complex Fire
Area affected: 110,405 acres (172 square miles)
Duration: June 5 – Nov. 13, 2013
The West Fork Complex fire started in an area Northeast of Pagosa Springs in Southwest Colorado. It was a combination of multiple smaller fires combined into one. Experts believe that the fires were sparked by lightning and connected to form a large fire.
At the time it occurred, the West Fork Fire was the second-largest forest fire event in Colorado history. The incident led to a temporary closure of US 160 as well as the evacuation of several homes in the area.
Area affected: 137,760 acres (215 square miles)
Duration: June 8 – July 18, 2002
The Hayman Fire was the largest and most destructive wildfire in Colorado for more than 18 years before it was displaced during the notorious 2020 fire season. The fire started in an area in the Pike National Forest, 22 miles southwest of Denver, and caused tens of millions in damage. Sparks from fire in a campfire ring caused the wildfire. Terry Barton, a forestry technician for the U.S Forest Service, went to jail for starting the campfire despite a fire ban.
Pine Gulch Fire
Area affected: 139,007 acres (217 square miles)
Duration: July 31 – Sept. 15, 2020
The Pine Gulch wildfire started in an area about 18 miles north of Grand Junction. Experts think the cause of the fire incident was a lightning strike that occurred during a dry thunderstorm. An ongoing drought in the area contributed to the spread of the fire. Plants and trees were particularly dry, allowing the rapid spread of the fire. In just one night (on Aug. 18), the fire spread over 30,000 acres due to 40-miles-per-hour winds. Despite the massive area the fire affected, it did not destroy any building.
East Troublesome Fire
Area affected: 192,560 acres (300 square miles)
Duration: Oct. 14 – Nov. 30, 2020
The East Troublesome Fire started small in the Grand County area. A combination of fast-moving dry winds and the presence of several dry beetle-kill trees in the fire’s path aided the spread of the fire. In less than 24 hours, the fire grew by more than 100,000 acres. Two towns had to be evacuated completely, and the fire event affected more than 35,000 people. The cause of the fire and the exact number of structural damage is unknown. The arrival of a snowstorm eventually helped slow down the spread of the fire.
Cameron Peak Fire
Area Covered: 208,663 acres (326 square miles)
Duration: Aug. 13 – Dec. 2, 2020
Currently holding the record for the biggest wildfire in Colorado, the Cameron Peak Fire went on for more than 112 days before firefighters finally contained it. The fire covered an area of over 200,000 Acres and was aided along by extreme drought conditions and unfavorable dry wind. It destroyed more than 224 homes in the area. Even a snowstorm that occurred in early September, dumping more than a foot of snow, was not sufficient to slow down the fire. It spread rapidly, covering the Fort Collins area in smoke and ash for several weeks, which affected air quality.
As this list shows, all the 10 largest wildfires that have occurred in the Colorado area took place in the past 20 years. Experts believe there’s a link between the severity of these fire incidents and growing climate change. Factors such as low rainfalls, high wings, low humidity, and high temperatures are contributing to the severity of wildfire incidents in Colorado and other parts of the country.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © marekuliasz/Shutterstock.com
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