May 19, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Wild weather includes "critical" fire risk, incoming Colorado snowstorm

Fire weather days in Northern Mountains of New Mexico, by year
Data: Climate Central/NOAA NCEI; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

A wide range of extreme weather is on tap for the West beginning on Thursday and lasting through Saturday, which could include record heat, high winds, dangerous fire weather conditions and even a major snowstorm.

The big picture: An intense cold front and storm system dives southeastward across the Rockies, bringing a potentially historic May snowstorm to the Colorado foothills and mountains, while aggravating wildfire conditions prior to its arrival.

The widespread threat of "critical" fire weather conditions exists on Thursday into Friday, with red flag warnings up across nine states from California to New Mexico and Colorado, even extending into the High Plains states.

  • The weather conditions threaten to worsen a severe start to the wildfire season across the drought-stricken region.

Threat level: A powerful cold front and low-pressure area is moving into the northern Rockies, with extremely cold air poised to spill in behind it.

  • This front will be preceded Thursday by near-record heat in the Southwest, as well as dry air and high winds.
  • In Denver, temperatures will be near 90°F today with high winds, before snow falls Friday night into the first part of the weekend.
  • The heat today will tie or break records in many places.
  • Temperatures in the 90s to around 100°F from the Plains to the Southwest will be as much as 30 degrees above average, the National Weather Service said in an online discussion Thursday.
  • "Extreme heat will significantly increase the potential for heat related illnesses, particularly for those working or participating in outdoor activities," the NWS stated about the heat in Texas, in particular.
  • The heat will also be a key component of the extremely dangerous wildfire conditions Thursday and in some regions into Friday too.

Context: Several large fires are already burning in New Mexico, including the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire, which at more than 300,000 acres is the largest in state history.

  • Other blazes are burning in parts of Colorado, threatening to spread with the heat and strong winds.

Of note: There is a long-term trend in many parts of the West toward more days that feature dangerous fire weather conditions.

In the region where the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak blaze is burning, the average number of fire weather days per year — days with a combination of heat, high winds and dry air — has increased by 59 days since 1973.

What's next: Once the cold front passes through central Colorado, it's likely that a significant snowstorm will take place from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to higher elevations, such as Rocky Mountain National Park.

  • Computer models are showing the likelihood for as much as two or more feet of snow in some higher elevations, with at least a few slushy inches falling in downtown Denver. Some models are showing even more snow in the Denver region, possibly as much as 8 inches.
  • May snowstorms are not unheard of in the Denver metro area, but in some areas, such as Boulder, this event could be especially historic. Since trees have greened up already, the potential for widespread power outages looms large.
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