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Western wildfires fueled by 'epic dryness'

6:15 AM, Jun 28, 2012   |    comments
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By Elizabeth Weise and Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY

In the Rocky Mountain West, firefighters say they've never seen the trees and grasses this dry so early in the summer.

"It's epic dryness," says Beth Lund, leader of the incident management team assigned to the High Park Fire, which has burned 135 square miles near Fort Collins, Colo., and destroyed at least 257 homes. It is now the most destructive in recorded Colorado history.

But hardly the only one. Ten separate fires are burning in Colorado, prompting a planned visit Friday by President Obama. They threaten the U.S. Air Force Academy, the town of Boulder and the city of Colorado Springs.

Colorado isn't the only state affected by an exceptionally severe fire season, with crews battling blazes in Alaska, Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

"The whole Central Rocky Mountain range is a tinderbox," says Ron Roth, of the Rocky Mountain Area Coordinating Center in Lakewood, Colo.

A light winter snow pack, dry spring, more people living in what was once wilderness and the long-term effects of climate change have all conspired to make this an especially bad fire season, Roth says. "We've got trees torching, tornadoes of fire - this is extreme fire behavior," he says.

The exceptional danger is a combination of very dry vegetation and waves of lightning storms, says Lee Bently, a public information officer for the incident management team responsible for the High Park Fire. "It's just instant ignition."

The front range of the Rockies has been suffering a long siege of dry weather, says Ed Delgado, national predictive services meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Climate change is undoubtedly playing a role, if only in the distribution of invasive insects, Delgado says. The pine bark beetle has been migrating north for years as warmer winters allow it to survive outside its previous range. The insects have killed millions of acres of forest, leaving behind tinder-dry wood.

"When that timber goes dead, it doesn't make for a real good situation when the fire comes," Bently says.

Those fires are all the more dangerous to humans because of the increasing numbers of Americans who choose to live in what once would have been called wilderness.

"As people move into those urban interface areas, it creates more of a challenge for us to suppress those fires," Roth says.

Contributing: Hughes reports for the Fort Collins Coloradoan

USA TODAY

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