There’s little doubt that 2020 will go down in infamy as one of the toughest periods of change in American history. Here in Colorado, intense wildfires and the resulting harmful air quality will be remembered as one of the prevailing storylines of this extraordinary year.
The Centennial State is accustomed to damaging wildfires, especially over the last 20 years, as climate change has caused our summers to become drier, warmer, and longer. But this year, the blazes were so extreme that they were cemented in the record books. Here, a list of Colorado’s largest wildfires—including the top three, all of whic sparked in 2020.
The Cameron Peak fire (2020)
208,663 acres burned
The Cameron Peak fire ignited on August 13 west of Fort Collins, about 15 miles southwest of Red Feather Lakes. The cause of the fire is unknown, but extreme drought conditions and unfavorable winds over a long period have exasperated its condition and dampened firefighting efforts. Thick smoke from the blaze has covered Fort Collins for weeks and led to awful air quality and ash falling from the skies in many Front Range communities. More than a foot of snow fell on the fire in an unusual early September storm, but it was not enough to extinguish it. A number of structures have already been damaged or destroyed by the fire, and thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate their homes.
East Troublesome Fire (2020)
192,560 acres burned
The East Troublesome Fire, what was a smaller fire in Grand County, started on October 14 and the cause is still under investigation. The night of October 21, the fire was at around 19,000 acres when Red Flag Warnings went into place. 60 mph winds, very dry air, and a lots of untouched beetle kill in the path led to this fire growing by over 100,000 acres in less than 24 hours. The entire town of Grand Lake and Lake Granby were evacuated within hours and the amount of structure damage is unknown but likely devastating. This is an active fire that is less than 10 miles from the Cameron Peak Fire (#1 on the list) and will likely need to be updated. For information on current evacuations for the Grand County area please visit co.grand.co.us.
The Pine Gulch fire (2020)
139,007 acres burned
The Pine Gulch fire erupted about 18 miles north of Grand Junction on July 31, 2020. The cause of the fire was a lightning strike from a dry thunderstorm. As drought worsened from partial to full coverage in Colorado throughout the summer, plants and trees continually dried out, allowing this fire to spread quickly. The combination of drought-stressed vegetation, unseasonably hot weather, and steep terrain led to weeks of active burning. On top of that, windy conditions allowed this fire to grow by more than 30,000 acres in just one night. No structures were damaged, and there were no related deaths.
The Hayman fire (2002)
137,760 acres burned
The Hayman Fire burned 35 miles northwest of Colorado Springs in 2002 and held the title of the largest fire in Colorado’s history for 18 years. The Hayman Fire was started by arson. The individual charged with sparking the flame, Terry Barton, said it started when she burnt a letter from her estranged husband (that account has been disputed.) The fire quickly grew out of control and caused more than $42 million dollars in losses and damages. A total of 135 homes were damaged or destroyed and 600 structures were completely ruined. Five firefighters also died fighting this blaze, and one civilian lost their life from smoke inhalation.
West Fork Complex fire (2013)
109,049 acres burned
The West Fork Complex fire was sparked Northeast of Pagosa Springs on June 5, 2013. The word “complex” comes from multiples fires burning in a similar area conjoining to form one large fire. This is exactly what happened here, as the West Fork—the first fire, which was caused by lightening—Papoose, and Windy Pass fires joined together. More than 250 homes and structures were damaged or destroyed during this inferno near Wolf Creek Pass.
Spring Creek Fire (2018)
108,045 acres burned
The Spring Creek Fire started on June 27, 2018 near Fort Garland and La Veta in Southern Colorado. The blaze was sparked by someone who was cooking food in a fire pit during a fire ban and didn’t fully extinguish the flame. With dry conditions and windy weather impacting the area, the fire quickly spread to nearby trees and then erupted to encompass more than 160 square miles of land.
High Park fire (2012)
87,284 acres burned
The High Park fire burned west of Fort Collins, near where the Cameron Peak fire currently burns. Lightning caused the initial spark, but dry and windy conditions quickly expanded the number of acres burned. One person died as a result, and more than 245 homes were damaged or destroyed, making it one of the most destructive fires in the state’s history.
Missionary Ridge fire (2002)
71,739 acres burned
The Missionary Ridge fire in Southwest Colorado allegedly sparked from a car dragging its muffler on June 9, 2002. A spark from that friction lit some grasses on the side of the road near Durango and ended up damaging or destroying 46 structures and killing one firefighter. This fire caused more than $40 million in damages.
416 fire (2018)
52,778 acres burned
The 416 fire also burned close to Durango. Its cause—an apparent spark from a coal locomotive on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad—made headlines and forced the closure of Purgatory Ski Resort and surrounding areas.
The Bridger fire (2008)
46,612 acres burned
The Bridger fire mainly burned grasslands near the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site in southeast Colorado. A lightning strike sparked the flame in the Spring Canyon area, but ferocious winds carried embers up to 6 miles away, creating a new fire that become the Bridger fire.
The 11–20 Largest Wildfires in Colorado History:
Last Chance fire (2012): 44,000 acres burned
Milemarker 117 (2018): 42,795 acres burned
Beaver Creek (2016): 38,380 acres burned
Bull Draw fire (2018): 36,520 acres burned
Badger Hole (2018): 33,609 acres burned
Logan fire (2017): 32,564 acres burned
Grizzly Creek fire ( 2020): 32,431 acres burned
Mount Zirkel Complex fire (2002): 31,016 acres burned
Burn Canyon fire (2002): 30,573 acres burned
Trinidad Complex fire, Colorado only (2002): 27,084 acres burned
Mayberry fire (2008): 25,385 acres burned
It’s important to note that all of the 20 largest wildfires in Colorado have occurred since 2000, although that shouldn’t be surprising. Research has shown strong links between climate change and the frequency and severity of fire seasons, due to a combination of high temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall, and often high winds. Because of changes in our climate, the fire season is starting earlier in the year and lasting long into fall. If you need evidence, just look around: Not only are our skies full of smoke, but you can now find burn scars from previous blazes in almost every region of the state.
We are monitoring the wildfires that are burning in Boulder County. For continuous updates on evacuation orders for Boulder County, visit BoCo.org. For updates on evacuation orders surrounding the Cameron Peak Fire, visit NoCoAlert.org.