Fri. Jan 21st, 2022

Devastating fires in Colorado conclude a year of horrific drought in the US. Dry conditions helped pave the way for fires that scorched hundreds of homes and forced tens of thousands to evacuate just before New Year’s Eve.

The fires have been raging in suburban Denver since December 30. Strong winds fanned the flames and cut off the power. About 6,000 acres and at least 500 homes were burned down Friday morning. But there were no casualties, which Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle called “miraculous” given the severity of the fire in a news conference. Families had “minutes” to evacuate their homes, Governor Jared Polis said.

More than two-thirds of Colorado’s land is experiencing “severe” drought, according to the US Drought Monitor. Officials suspect that downed power lines caused the inferno, a problem that becomes more dangerous when a dry landscape produces a lot of tinder.

Experts expected a particularly bad burning season this year. The potential for “significant fire activity” was “above normal” for nearly the entire West at some point this year, according to a February forecast from the National Interagency Fire Center. By the end of the year, more than 7.8 million acres had been burned in the US, five percent more than the 10-year average of 7.4 million.

What is typical for the US is changing due to the climate crisis. Severe fires have become much more frequent in the western US in recent decades with warmer, drier seasons. In addition, the fire season – which used to run roughly from May to November – no longer seems to be coming to an end. Colorado’s fires illustrate this, unusually late in the year.

The Colorado fires are just one catastrophic symptom of drought in the US. The Colorado River, a lifeline for 25 million people who depend on it for water, experienced an unprecedented water shortage this year. In August, the first official shortage of the US’s largest reservoir, Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead, was identified. The water level in the reservoir fell to an all-time low in June. Beginning January 1, mandatory water cuts will apply to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. Arizona faces its steepest austerity measures, which are expected to hit farmers the hardest. In California, the drought slashed the state’s available hydroelectric power plants — putting even more strain on the electrical grid that struggles to keep the lights on for many residents when the fire flares up again.

Heavy rain and record snow now close out the year in California. That has helped somewhat to alleviate water shortages, but it’s still not enough to end the drought. Climate change, no surprise, is driving the increase in extreme weather fluctuations. It is intensifying the world’s water cycle, says a landmark climate report published this year. So we probably want to brace ourselves for another wild weather year in 2022.

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