NewsJune 27, 2012

Heat Wave Adds to Wildfire Woes, Expands East

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

Blistering and desiccating heat across the West and High Plains helped aggravate an already dangerous wildfire situation in Colorado and several other states, and now the heat is moving eastward toward the Midwest, South Central states, and eventually the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

Denver endured a record fifth straight day of 100-degree temperatures on Tuesday, and the high temperature of 105°F tied the city’s all-time record high, a milestone that reached just a day earlier. Colorado Springs also hit an all-time mark on Tuesday, with a high of 101°F.

View looking north toward Colorado Springs of smoke rising from the Waldo Canyon Fire. Taken June 26 by the National Weather Service. Click on image for a larger version.

At least 23 daily high temperature records were broken or tied in Colorado alone on Tuesday.

The heat, combined with drought conditions and afternoon thunderstorms that brought lightning but little rain, helped create ideal conditions for massive wildfires in Colorado. A thunderstorm-related wind shift caused the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs to advance on the state’s second-largest city, prompting evacuation orders for at least 32,000. The fire has consumed an unknown number of homes and businesses.

According to the Denver Post, the wildfires are “shaping up as one of the biggest disasters in Colorado history.”

“This is a fire of epic proportions,” Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown told Reuters. Following a helicopter flyover of the Waldo Canyon blaze, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told reporters: “It was like looking at the worst movie set you could imagine.


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“It's almost surreal. You look at that, and it's like nothing I've seen before,” he said, according to a report on

The Waldo Canyon Fire had burned more than 15,000 acres as of Wednesday, and was just 5 percent contained.

On Tuesday, lightning ignited another blaze near the city of Boulder, prompting the temporary evacuation of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which sits high atop a mesa overlooking the city. Other new wildfires were reported in Montana and Utah, among other states.

Near-record heat, along with the potential for more dry thunderstorms that can both start fires and prompt sudden shifts in wind direction, were forecast for Wednesday.

The heat affected areas well to the east of the wildfire zones as well. McKook, Neb., for example, set an all-time high temperature record on Tuesday, with the temperature reaching 115°F.

Nationwide, 156 daily high temperature records were set or tied Tuesday, along with 54 warm overnight low temperature records. During the June 20-to-26 period, 966 daily high temperature records were set or tied, along with 683 warm overnight low temperature records. This compares with 162 daily cold temperature records and 126 cold overnight low temperature records. (Track record temperatures using Climate Central's Record Tracker).

Map of the Waldo Canyon Fire (area in red) near Colorado Springs. Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: NOAA.

In a long-term trend that demonstrates the effects of a warming climate, daily record-high temperatures have recently been outpacing daily record-lows by an average of 2-to-1, and this imbalance is expected to grow as the climate continues to warm. According to a 2009 study, if the climate were not warming, this ratio would be expected to be even. Other studies have shown that climate change increases the odds of extreme heat events and may make them warmer and longer lasting.

The heat, which is associated with a broad dome of High Pressure, is beginning to crest eastward, with heat warnings and advisories posted on Wednesday from Texas to Minnesota. Temperatures will come close to or exceed 100°F in many cities during the next few days, with the heat reaching the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic by Friday, sending air temperatures along with heat indexes soaring to dangerous levels. Atlanta, Charleston, S.C., Chicago, Indianapolis, Richmond and Roanoke, Va., and Washington, D.C. can all expect to see 100°F or greater high temperatures before this heat wave ends. Some computer model forecasts, in fact, show temperatures approaching 115°F from Missouri to Tennessee, which would be unprecedented for these areas.