Colorado Fire Season: In-Depth Guide

Explore details regarding the Colorado fire season from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA). Learn when is it, how long it lasts, risk factors and more.

Published:June 6, 2023
Edited:
April 24, 2024

Table of Contents

    Explore details regarding the Colorado fire season from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA). Learn when is it, how long it lasts, risk factors and more.

    Colorado is known for its natural beauty. The state is famous for the Rocky Mountains that mark the Continental Divide, which separates watersheds that drain into the Pacific Ocean from river systems that drain into the Atlantic Ocean. As the population of Colorado rises and the state sees increasing droughts, however, wildfires are becoming a major concern. Learn about Colorado’s wildfire season and the risks that residents may need to mitigate.

    When is Colorado Fire Season?

    Colorado’s fire season typically lasts from May through September.1 While wildfire risk historically peaked during the summer, Colorado has experienced huge fires every month of the year, with increasing fire danger in winter.2

    Risk Factors for Wildfires in Colorado

    Drought

    Ten days without precipitation can put regions of Colorado at risk of wildfire.3 The effect of climate change is also expected to reduce Colorado’s spring snowpack levels. Snowpack stores water throughout the cold months and releases water during snowmelt.4 Climate change may cause earlier snowmelt and runoff in Colorado, and potentially lower runoff overall. This will impact water resources for communities, agriculture, and native plant life.5

    Weather

    High winds in Colorado, especially during the winter, can fan fires sparked by lightning strikes or human activity. Unpredictable winter winds are caused by air pressure differences or by Chinook winds developing in the mountains. The Rocky Mountains create strong wind currents that blow west as the Santa Ana winds or east as Chinook winds.6 These winds can blow at 60-100 miles per hour and have pushed wildfires to a dangerous size in minutes.

    Fuel

    Summer rains reduce immediate fire risks in Colorado, but they also help vegetation grow throughout the state. As these plants dry out in winter, they become potential fuel for wildfires.3 This increases Colorado’s wildfire risk during cold months. The Western states also focused on fire suppression practices throughout the 20th century, which led to denser, continuous forests in Colorado. These forest structures often spark crown fires that spread from treetop to treetop, which are difficult to fight.7

    Human Activity

    Nearly 90% of wildfires are started by humans.8 Residents of Colorado should avoid burning debris on windy days, monitor any campfire until it is completely out, and keep fire extinguishing tools ready to reduce wildfire risk. Smokers should dispose of matches, lighters, and cigarette butts responsibly. There are also burn bans in effect during times when wildfire danger is particularly high, and Colorado residents are prohibited from using fireworks during fire season.9

    How Wildfire Season in Colorado is Changing

    As climate change increases temperatures and decreases humidity in Colorado, wildfire risk rises.10 Based on statewide meteorological data analyzed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Colorado’s climate has warmed by about 2°F over the past 30 years. Periodic warmer, drier conditions during this time have raised wildfire intensity.5 The drought conditions that cause large wildfires are expected to increase in the northeast and decrease in the southwest areas of the state.7

    According to data collected by the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center (RMACC) between 2011-2020, Colorado reports an average of 5,618 wildfires each year, and approximately 237,500 acres burn annually.3 Colorado’s growing population, expanding wildland-urban interface, and rising temperatures increase the risk of wildfire damage in communities. Homes and businesses are being built on lands that historically had regular wildfires. Land managers and property owners must work together to adapt properties so that firefighters can safely protect structures while allowing fire to positively impact the local ecosystem.11

    A brush fire burns in the foreground. Mountains rise in the background. Two firefighters are highlighted by an orange circle on the left.
    Managing fuels and using intentional fire are two ways that can help to prevent especially large and destructive fires from taking place.

    Recent Colorado Wildfires

    The top 10 biggest fires in Colorado’s history have all taken place since 2002.5 The largest fire ever was the Cameron Peak Fire, which burned over 200,000 acres in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National forests and Rocky Mountain National Park during the devastating 2020 fire season.12 The 2022 Marshall Fire was the most destructive Colorado fire in terms of property damage, burning 1,084 homes during the three days it was active.13 Below are recent major wildfires in Colorado.

    Gageby Creek Fire (2023)
    Start Date: 4/19/2023
    Location: Bent County
    Acres Burned: 4,600
    Cause: Unknown
    403 Fire (2023)
    Start Date: 3/31/2023
    Location: Park County
    Acres Burned: 1,215
    Cause: Unknown
    Marshall Fire (2022)
    Start Date: 12/30/2021
    Location: Boulder County
    Acres Burned: 6,200
    Cause: Unknown
    Morgan Creek Fire (2021)
    Start Date: 7/10/2021
    Location: Routt County
    Acres Burned: 7,586
    Cause: Lightning
    Oil Springs Fire (2021)
    Start Date: 6/18/2021
    Location: Rio Blanco County
    Acres Burned: 12,613
    Cause: Lightning
    East Troublesome Fire (2020)14
    Start Date: 10/14/2020
    Location: Grand and Larimer Counties
    Acres Burned: 193,812
    Cause: Unknown
    Mullen Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 9/17/2020
    Location: Originated in Wyoming, moved into Jackson County, CO
    Acres Burned: 176,878
    Cause: Unknown
    Middle Fork Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 9/6/2020
    Location: Routt and Jackson Counties
    Acres Burned: 20,517
    Cause: Lightning
    Williams Fork Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 8/14/2020
    Location: Grand County
    Acres Burned: 14,833
    Cause: Human
    Cameron Peak Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 8/13/2020
    Location: Larimer County
    Acres Burned: 208,913
    Cause: Unknown
    Grizzly Creek Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 8/10/2020
    Location: Garfield and Eagle Counties
    Acres Burned: 32,631
    Cause: Human
    Pine Gulch Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 7/31/2020
    Location: Mesa and Garfield Counties
    Acres Burned: 139,007
    Cause: Lightning

    Historical Colorado Wildfire Trends

    Fire years in Colorado are historically associated with regional drought conditions. The west side of the Continental Divide had fewer, larger fires due to more frequent and severe droughts. Northwestern Colorado’s lodgepole pine forests also experienced major fires during dry conditions. A study of recent fire trends found that Colorado fires are moving northward. There are growing hotspots near Grand Junction and the central north area of the state. The latter hotspot may expand into Rocky Mountain National Park in future fire seasons and threaten populated areas.7

    Colorado Wildfire Resources

    Utilize WFCA’s Fire Map to search for the status of an active wildfire in Colorado. Users can zoom in and select each individual fire to get instant access to the latest published information.

    Sources

    1. U.S. Department of the Interior: Bureau of Land Management, “Colorado Fire Information.” Accessed May 22, 2023.
    2. Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, “Community Preparedness.” Accessed May 22, 2023.
    3. Colorado Sun, “Thanks to rain, there have been far fewer Colorado wildfires in 2022. This fall could change that.” Accessed May 22, 2023.
    4. EPA, “Climate Change Indicators: Snowpack.” Accessed February 9, 2023.
    5. Colorado State Forest Service, “Colorado’s Forests in a Changing Climate.” Accessed May 22, 2023.
    6. Live Science, “What Are Chinook Winds?” Accessed January 11, 2023.
    7. Science Direct, “Geospatial characteristics of Colorado wildfire occurrences from 2001 to 2020.” Accessed May 22, 2023.
    8. Congressional Research Service, “Wildfire Statistics.” Accessed February 15, 2023.
    9. Uncover Colorado, “Brief History of Wildfires in Colorado.” Accessed May 22, 2023.
    10. Colorado Newsline, “Colorado wildfires: Updates on the 2022 season.” Accessed May 22, 2023.
    11. Colorado State Forest Service, “ Colorado’s Wildland-Urban Interface.” Accessed May 23, 2023.
    12. The Nature Conservancy, “Colorado Forest Fires, Climate Change and River Health.” Accessed May 22, 2023.
    13. Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, “Historical Wildfire Information.” Accessed May 22, 2023.

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