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During summer in Colorado, high temperatures and low humidity can create tinder-dry conditions that fuel wildfires. On average, over 2,500 forest fires occur in Colorado each year. Most of these fires are small and quickly extinguished, but large, catastrophic fires can and do occur.

In 2002, the fire season got off to an unusually early—and dangerous—start. By early June, several major fires were burning across the state, including the Hayman Fire—the largest fire in Colorado's recorded history, with nearly 138,000 acres burned (an area that is about 40 percent larger than the city of Denver!).

Near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, another destructive fire in 2002 was caused by a coal seam fire that had been smoldering underground for decades.

What causes wildfires?
In the U.S., most wildland fires are started by people. In Colorado, lightning-caused fires are more common, accounting for about two-thirds of all wildfires.

Wildfires can ignite when three key factors come together: a fuel source, a heat source, and oxygen. Dry forests, brush, or grasslands serve as the primary fuel source. Heat is usually supplied in the form of lightning or an existing fire source, such as a campfire or a cigarette. And of course, oxygen is abundantly supplied by the atmosphere.

Wildfire: Good or Bad?
Fire is nature’s way of clearing out a forest. In a dry climate such as Colorado’s, bacteria and fungi can’t always break down dead organic matter completely. Fire finishes the job, recycling vital nutrients back into the soil. However, after more than a century of fire suppression and the consequent buildup of fuels, wildfires can burn with abnormal intensity, spread rapidly, and do major damage.

When homes are destroyed and people are hurt or killed, it’s easy to forget that fire is a beneficial natural process. Forest fires open up holes in the forest, giving new plants light and room to grow. Most species don’t suffer long-term problems, having evolved with fire as a natural part of the ecosystem. For example, the cones of the Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine only open to release their seeds after a fire.

Recommended Links

Want to see how many wildfires are burning across the nation today? Curious about how to increase your home’s chances of surviving a wildfire? This “hot” site features lots of multimedia designed to help make you wiser about wildfires.

How Wildfires Work
Learn about the common causes of wildfires, how firefighters fight wildfires, and more.

National Fire News
Get the latest wildfire information and statistics from this informative site.

NOVA: Fire Wars
Find out how plants use fire, learn about the gear firefighters use to help them fight fires, and experiment with a wildfire simulator.

NOAA Fire Events Satellite Imagery
View satellite images of the latest wildfire events.

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Photo credits: © Corbis Images, © NCAR, © NOAA, courtesy NEWS4, Colorado's News Channel.