Colorado Fires, East Coast Storms

Two people are dead in the Colorado Springs area due to the Black Forest fire, which continues to rage virtually unchecked about five miles northeast of Colorado’s second largest city (population 400,000.) The fire’ had burned through 15,700 acres by late Thursday afternoon, and was 5% contained. Over 38,000 people in 13,000 homes had been evacuated. The weather was no help on Thursday, as afternoon temperatures spiked to 90°, winds were sustained at 33 mph, gusting to 40 mph, and the humidity dropped as low as 14%. The fire began on Tuesday, June 11, during a record heat wave. Colorado Springs hit 98° on June 10–the city’s hottest temperature ever recorded so early in the year. The temperature topped out at 97° on June 11. The extreme heat, combined with the extreme drought gripping the region, made for ideal fire conditions. Fire conditions will not be as dangerous in the Colorado Springs area on Friday, as a weak cold front is expected to pass through the region during the afternoon, bringing cooler temperatures and increased humidity. Strong winds may still be a problem, though.

Figure 1. The Black Forest Fire burns behind a stand of trees on June 12, 2013, near Colorado Springs, Colo. (Chris Schneider/Getty Images)

Figure 2. Aerial view of a Colorado Springs neighborhood burned in the Black Forest Fire on June 13, 2013. (Image: AP Photo/John Wark)

The three most expensive fires in Colorado history have all occurred in the past year
The 360 homes burned by this week’s Black Canyon fire are the most ever destroyed in Colorado by a fire, and will likely make it the most expensive fire in Colorado history. The previous record was the $353 million Waldo Canyon fire of June 23 – July 10, 2012. That fire killed two people, destroyed 347 homes, forced the evacuation of over 32,000 people, and burned 18,247 acres of land. The High Park fire of June, 2012, which destroyed 259 buildings near Fort Collins, now ranks as the third most expensive Colorado fire (it was the most expensive one at the time.) The Black Forest fire has a long ways to go if it wants to challenge the 2002 Hayman Fire as the largest fire in Colorado history. The Hayman fire burned 138,000 acres, an area about nine times as large as this week’s Black Forest fire.

According to a federal report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012, Colorado can expect to see a sharp increase in wildfires during the coming decades, if the climate warms as expected. The report cited research predicting that a 1.8°F increase in Colorado’s average temperature–the level of warming expected by 2050 under a moderate global warming scenario–would cause a factor of 2.8 – 6.6 increase in fire area burned in the state.

Video 1. Aerial view of the Colorado Springs Black Forest fire on June 11, 2013.

Severe thunderstorms pound the Mid-Atlantic
It was another intense day of severe thunderstorm activity for the Mid-Atlantic region on Thursday. A child was killed in Virginia by a falling tree, and at least three people were injured in Albemarle, North Carolina when a violent thunderstorm blew trees onto homes. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center (SPC) logged 376 reports of damaging thunderstorm wind gusts in the 15 hours ending at 11:25 pm EDT Thursday night, and three of these gusts were 74 mph or greater. SPC is now acknowledging that Wednesday’s bow echo that traveled 600 miles from Indiana to New Jersey was a low-end derecho, with over 150 damaging wind reports. The most impressive thunderstorm winds from the derecho occurred in Wabash County, Indiana, where a “macroburst” produced winds of 90 – 100 mph across an area seven miles long and three miles wide, destroying three buildings and causing extensive tree damage. Total damage from the two-day severe weather outbreak over the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic will likely run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Figure 3. Severe weather reports for the 15 hours ending at 11:25 pm EDT June 14, 2013, from SPC.

Figure 4. Radar composite of the June 12 – 13 bow echo that traveled from Indiana to new Jersey. Image credit: NOAA/SPC.