A metal structure in North Park lies in pieces, warped from the intense heat of High Park fire flames. Feet away stands a wooden information booth, unscathed and surrounded by what seems to be a halo of bright green grass.
While firefighters battle to extinguish the flames of the High Park fire— which has burned 83,205 acres as of Monday— others seek to explain it.
The fire resulted from a lightning strike, according to fire investigators. Sher Schranz, senior project manager with Colorado State’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, said that this tree was actually smouldering for days before the flames broke out.
It was the perfect combination of factors: low humidity, copious amounts of dry fuel and abnormally high temperatures that contributed to the spread of the fire.
According to Schranz, the current precipitation rate in Colorado is 40% below the normal level and has been low for about seven to eight years.
In addition, dead trees from the beetle kill built up a pile of dry fire fuel, according to Schranz.
Monique Rocca, an associate professor of wildland fire science at CSU, said the location of needles from the dead pine trees will have an effect on the way the fire burns.
“If the dry needles are still on the tree, it’s more likely to torch,” Rocca said. “Needles that have already fallen from the dead trees will burn at the base but not have as much effect on the canopy.”
Rocca clarified, however, that beetle kill trees did not cause the fire. This is evident due to the several other fires throughout Colorado not affected by the Mountain Pine Beetle.
“This fire would have happened with or without the beetle kill,” Rocca said.
One of the biggest instigators to the High Park: temperature. According to the National Weather Service Forecast Office, the Denver-Boulder area of Colorado is currently experiencing temperatures 10-15 degrees higher than average.
Weather forecasts through the weekend predict a continuance of these temperatures as well as afternoon thunderstorms. The summer months also bring storms. However, these storms are unlikely to provide the needed amount of rain but rather provide powerful winds, according to Schranz.
Schranz is currently researching the feedback effects a fire such as the High Park might have on the local weather conditions.
According to Schranz, satellite imaging indicate that the smoke from the fire has prevented clouds from forming overhead. This could potentially have an effect on the overall atmospheric temperature in the area; however, this is still being looked into, according to Schranz.
High Park firefighters also have access to the FX-Net technology, according to Schranz, which allows them to receive live weather updates. This will allow them to better predict the fire’s behavior in the presence of abnormal weather conditions.
Though the fire has torched much of the landscape, it has left other places, such as Gateway Park, untouched.
Rocca said these islands of unburned vegetation will aid in the regrowth of the forest.
“It all depends on how severely and to what extent the trees have been burned,” Rocca said.
Trees growing in the higher elevations of the mountains can actually benefit from the burn, according to Rocca.
Fires in this area release seeds from these trees which can then begin regrowth of the forest. However, lower elevation trees such as the ponderosa pine will not re-seed if burned too severely.
At a press conference during the beginning days of the fire, Larimer Sheriff Justin Smith told the media, “Mother Nature is running this fire.”
While much of the fire can be explained by science, an even higher percentage remains unknown to fire scientists.