Colorado: Are January red flag fire warnings in the mountains part of a new climate reality?

Click on the map for red flag fire warning details.

*UPDATED: The red flag warning was lifted Thursday (Jan. 24) afternoon as cooler weather moves into the area. Check for the latest.

January fire warnings, nearly unprecedented 30 years ago, have become more common the last decade

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Illustrating the persistence of extraordinary drought conditions in parts of Colorado, the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag fire warning for the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Denver north to the Wyoming border and encompassing areas that were scorched by last summer’s High Park Fire.

Boulder-based National Weather Service forecaster Mike Baker said the agency decided to post the warning after three wildfires were reported Wednesday (Jan. 24) within the span of an hour. All three fires were above 8.500 feet elevation on the east slope of the mountains along the Front Range, Baker said.

The warning is in effect through 5 p.m. although it could be lifted earlier if an approaching weather system brings a little moisture to the atmosphere, Baker said. Strong winds in the foothills west of Boulder and Golden could lead to rapid growth of any fires that start. The most critical areas are on southern exposures and in open areas in the foothills.

“If you look over the last 30 years, this would be extraordinary,” Baker said, referring to the January red flag warning. “But if you look at the 2000s, it’s not so unusual,” he added, explaining that the current weather pattern is reminiscent of the situation in the early 2000s that culminated with the Hayman Fire — the largest ever in Colorado — in June of 2002.

After a two-year La Niña spell, the state is experiencing unusually dry conditions, a pattern that may be exacerbated by other factors, including a longer-term Pacific Ocean cycle called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which is sort of big brother to the La Niña – El Niño oscillation, according NOAA research meteorologist Klaus Wolter.

Cool phases of the PDO have historically been linked with overall drier conditions in Colorado, including extended droughts in the 1950s and early 1900s, Wolter said.

Global warming is likely a backdrop for these other factors. With Colorado just having experienced one its warmest and driest years ever, fuel moistures were low to begin with, and the lack of snow cover this winter has worsened those conditions.

As a result of changing climatic conditions, the National Weather Service in Colorado has started issuing fire weather forecasts year-round, Baker said.

Baker said the relative humidity in the region has been wavering between 1 and 3 percent.


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