The wildfires burning in Colorado have been accelerated by hot, dry, and windy conditions for the past few weeks, but a cold front with snow in the forecast will hopefully bring much-needed relief to our drought-stricken state.
If the wildfires weren’t enough indication, recent drought updates show nothing but an exacerbated situation across Colorado. Still, 100 percent of the state is under a moderate drought, 97 percent is under severe drought, 77 percent is under extreme drought (up 18 percent since last week), and 22 percent of the state (up 5 percent from last week) is under the highest category—exceptional drought.
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This upcoming weekend storm, set to bring cold air and snow, is coming too late for many folks who have already lost their homes, property, and businesses to fires in recent days and weeks, but it may mark a shift in season.
“The highest totals could exceed a foot of snow from Saturday night through Monday across the Northern Front Range and Higher Foothills,” says Paul Schlatter, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Boulder. He added, “This will absolutely help with containing the spread of the fires, but it’s unknown that this amount would actually put [these wildfires] out.”
Schlatter notes that just like in early September when we saw 12 to 18 inches of snow fall on the Cameron Peak Fire, it was the conditions after—weeks of dry, warm, and windy weather—that led to the fire continuing to grow.
Even with temperatures falling in the single-digits and possibly below zero in some places, it would not be enough alone to end the fires. According to Schlatter, the amount of much liquid absorbed by the fuels is what matters when we talk about a fire-ending storm (the fuels being the dry bushes and trees and beetle kill trees that are in these fires path.)
“The East Troublesome fire would need at least 1-inch of liquid (or 14 to 18 inches of snow) and for it to not get extremely dry after this event,” Schlatter says about the possibility of the fire being extinguished.
For lower elevations around Denver, that powerful cold front will blast through the city Saturday night dropping temperatures into the teens and 20s. Snow will begin to fall Saturday night and last through Monday with temperatures not reaching above freezing until Tuesday afternoon. The total snow accumulation is looking to be in the 3 to 6-inch range for Denver with a chance for heavier totals in some places. Regardless, expect tough driving conditions and brutal cold to last for several days. Overnight lows on Monday and Tuesday may dip into the single digits for Denver. The remainder of next week is looking cool but sunny.
Though this weather change is right on our heels, fire conditions will continue to be conducive for further fire development and growth through Saturday. With intense winds and warmth on tap ahead of the cold front starting Friday night, the Cameron Peak, East Troublesome, and Calwood fires will need to be monitored closely for erratic fire behavior.