Historic Heat Wave in Central States; Wildfire Season Roars to Life

Fueled by parched vegetation and the most intense heat wave since the dust bowl, fires have erupted across Colorado. The Waldo Canyon fire has moved into suburban Colorado Springs.

Fueled by parched vegetation and the most intense heat wave since the dust bowl, fires have erupted across Colorado. The Waldo Canyon fire has moved into suburban Colorado Springs.

For the second time this year, a record smashing heat wave has taken hold across the central United States. While March’s record setting heat wave merely pushed the calendar forward to July and August, giving beach days to St. Patrick’s Day weekend, the heatwave currently baking the plains is of the far more dangerous variety.

On Wednesday, the official high temperature observed at Denver International Airport only managed to make its way up to 97 degrees. This is of not as it was the first time in the previous six days that the temperature failed to do so. For the previous five days, the average high in Denver has been 104 degrees – nearly 20 degrees above normal. The 105 degrees seen on the 25th and 26th of June have become the city’s hottest temperatures on record. Elsewhere in the state, Las Animas’s 114° reading on the 24th tied the state’s all time record – a temperature that was only touched before in July of 1933 and 1954.

The heat along the front range of the Rocky Mountains has been accompanied by exceptionally low levels of humidity – creating a tinderbox environment that is ripe for an aggressive start to the western fire season. That season has come to life in a huge way in the state of Colorado, with major out of control fires burning in four separate locations across the state – in addition to 25 other fires of smaller sizes. Two in the southwestern regions have charred 32,270 acres – nearly 50.5 square miles. Burning closer to more densely populated areas are the High Park fire near Fort Collins which has burned 87,000+ acres (136 square miles) on its own and the Waldo Canyon fire – which exploded to life in the early morning hours of Wednesday to take over 15,500 acres (24+ square miles). It is this last fire that has threatened the northern suburbs of Colorado Springs as well as the Air Force Academy.

Evacuees jammed Interstate 25 trying to flee the fire - 30,000 people have been ordered out so far with hundreds of homes destroyed.

Evacuees jammed Interstate 25 trying to flee the fire – 30,000 people have been ordered out so far with hundreds of homes destroyed.

Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from the path of the Waldo Canyon fire as hundreds of homes have already been lost. Firefighters in the area report attempting to stand their ground to save structures but being overwhelmed by gusty winds and rapidly advancing fire lines to the point where they have to pull back. Present wind conditions have been driving the fire to the northeast – still through populated areas but not through the city of Colorado Springs itself. A shift to the southeast could change all of that in a hurry, and the city’s mayor is readily aware of that fact. From Reuters:

Firefighters struggled on Wednesday to beat back a wildfire raging at the edge of Colorado Springs that doubled in size overnight, forced more than 32,000 people from their homes and was nipping at the edges of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The blaze, fanned by hot winds, has charred a number of homes on the wooded edges of the city and was prompting fresh evacuations on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama plans to travel to the area on Friday to view the damage. But in the chaos of the fire’s advance, officials could not say exactly how many homes were lost or how many more people might join the ranks of the displaced.

Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown called the firestorm threatening his city – in a metropolitan area of more than 650,000 people – “a monster” and said at this point flames were “not even remotely close to being contained.”

The fire, which has charred 15,517 acres in the shadow of the famed Pikes Peak mountaintop, was not as intense early on Wednesday as the day before, but would likely build up again as the temperature rises during the day, fire information officer Rob Deyerberg said.

Though much shorter in duration than its Colorado counterpart, the heat wave is expected to spill eastward on Thursday (shown) and Friday - with 100 degree temperatures stretching from Colorado to Michigan.

Though much shorter in duration than its Colorado counterpart, the heat wave is expected to spill eastward on Thursday (shown) and Friday – with 100 degree temperatures stretching from Colorado to Michigan.

The evacuation zone currently extends onto the grounds of the Air Force Academy – effecting two communities of single family homes. Operations continue at the academy for the time being, but a sudden surge in the fire could require further rapid evacuations.

Records have fallen by the hundred over the past few days, though the heat and dangerous conditions were not just confined to Colorado. Nebraska has set a new June record high: 115° at McCook. That state record had held since 1936. Colorado Spring’s 101° during the heatwave is the city’s all time record for any month. Montana’s new all time record high is now 111° thanks to Miles City. Kansas came within one degree of a June record with 115° at Hill City. 100 degree readings, though not all-time threatening temperatures, are expected to spread east toward the Great Lakes for a brief but sharp heat wave to carry the remainder of the workweek.

 

 

The burn area from the Waldo Canyon Fire encroaches on Colorado Springs.

The burn area from the Waldo Canyon Fire encroaches on Colorado Springs.