Colorado Wildfires: Looking back at how 2012 compares to 2020

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COLORADO — As several wildfires continue to spread across Colorado, the state is battling more than just flames. Colorado is currently in the midst of one of its worst droughts since the devastating wildfire season of 2012. We’re actually seeing similarities between the two wildfire seasons.

The latest drought monitor is not bringing any good news for Colorado, with 100% of the state running at least abnormally dry. One major parallel between this year and 2012 is that both had a statewide drought that set the stage for the most destructive fires in the state’s history.

During the month of June alone in 2012, the Waldo Canyon fire combined with the High Park fire burned more than 100,000 acres. It was a year many Coloradans will never forget.

“The entire landscape was obscured by the smoke and the plume. When it starts affecting your own backyard and you see the people and how it’s affecting them, it leaves a big impact,” said Makoto Moore, an incident meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

That year, a dry spring for the plains and below-average mountain snow caused an early snowmelt.

“2012 and 2013 were remarkable in that they had very bad snowpacks and the run-off reflected that. 2012 the snow came early and then stopped and then melted off very early,” said Tony Anderson, a service hydrologist with the National Weather Service.

By the end of May, hot temperatures pushed the drought into full swing.

Fast forward to August 2020, the Pine Gulch Fire is now taking the top spot for Colorado’s largest wildfire ever, burning 139,000 acres and still not completely contained.

What’s interesting about this year, unlike 2012, is that we actually had a healthy winter snowpack, but the runoff didn’t reflect that.

“We’re over double the run-off that we saw in 2012. This year a lot of it, we think, evaporated, so it never turned into water and a lot of it melted early and was soaked up by dry grounds,” Anderson said.

More winter snow led to lush vegetation, which dried out and is now providing fuel for these fires.

“That helps grow all the grasses, replenishes the moisture supply for a lot of the vegetation out there, the fuels. As we start drying out, those fine fuels carry the fire to the larger fuels,” said Moore.  

Another similarity to the two wildfire seasons is we saw record heat both years. In fact, Colorado Springs is on track to set a new record this year, beating out 2012 for the most 90 degrees or hotter days. If we warm into the 90s two more days, 2020 will officially tie that record. Three more and we beat it.

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