Massive Colorado Winter Fire Partially Blamed on New Construction and Urban Sprawl

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Two factors caused a winter grassland fire to sweep through Colorado’s Front Range, says Johnathon Overpeck, professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan: parched weather and the encroachment of suburbs into grasslands.

Two people were still missing as of January 3rd. Officials estimate that the fire destroyed at least a thousand houses and other structures in a blaze that burned 9.4 square miles.

“With any snow on the ground, this absolutely would not have happened in the way that it did,” said Keith Musselman, a snow hydrologist in Boulder. “It was really the grass and the dry landscape that allowed this fire to jump long distances in a short period.”

A dry environment and development in wildlands spell a recipe for disaster, says Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“There were stretches between Denver and Fort Collins that had no development, but now it’s just like one long continuous development track,” Balch said. “And those homes are built with materials that are very flammable — wood siding, asphalt roofing.

“We need to completely rethink how we’re building homes.”

She urges understanding of how these fires start as a first defense.

“There’s no natural source of ignition at this time of year. There’s no lightning,” she said. “It’s either going to be infrastructure-related, or it’s going to be human-caused. The way we live in the landscape and our daily activities make us vulnerable.”

Humans have started 97% of wildfires in the last 20 years, according to a study by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Causes include construction accidents, hot car tailpipes, and flicked cigarettes.

Balch ended with a grim prediction: “We’re building towns and cities and infrastructure, and so it’s just a matter of time before we have whole towns burning down as we had in California and events like this in Colorado.”

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