Working to keep the West special

Climate Disruption in the West: More Wildfires

Higher temperatures, longer summers and more lightning from more severe storms – to say nothing of more droughts – are predicted to lead to more wildfires in the Rocky Mountains.

Researchers have predicted that climate change could double the acreage burned by wildfires in the Sierra Nevada. Scientists from Colorado State University and the University of Colorado have reached similar conclusions with respect to the one area of the Colorado mountains that has been the subject of a specific study: Rocky Mountain National Park.  

“Projections under future climate scenarios suggest that lightning ignitions will increase by 50 to 92 percent, human ignitions will increase by 3 to 30 percent, and the probability of [any one] fire exceeding 10 acres will increase by 30 to 100 percent.”

N.T. Hobbs and others, "Future Impacts of Global Climate on Rocky Mountain National Park – Its Ecosystems, Visitors, and the Economy of Its Gateway Community – Estes Park" (2003)


An increase in western wildfires as a result of an altered climate is not just a projection -- it has already begun happening. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2007 that "more prevalent fire disturbances" have "recently been observed."

The major study on climate disruption's effects on western wildfires, published in 2006, "established a dramatic and sudden increase in large wildfire activity in the western USA in the mid-1980s closely associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snow melt." Comparing the 17 years after 1987 with the 17 previous years, the researchers found a 78-day increase in the length of the fire season, a fourfold increase in the number of fires, a fivefold increase in the time needed to put out the average fire, and 6.7 times as much acreage being burned.

"You won't find them [climate change skeptics] on the fire line in the American West anymore."

Tom Boatner
Chief of Operatons
National Interagency Fire Center (2007)

For more information on increased wildfire in the West as a result of a disrupted climate, see RMCO's joint report with the Union of Concerned Scientists, Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk.