Published: June 24, 2022

Much of the western U.S. remains in the grip of an unrelenting drought. This dryness has coincided with record-breaking wildfires, intense and long-lasting heat waves, and western reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell now at their lowest levels ever recorded.

Following 2020 and 2021—the fifth and fourth hottest years on record in the United States respectively—2022 is on track to become one of the 10 hottest years worldwide. The western U.S. has also seen some of its most devastating wildfires in the past three years, including the Marshall Fire on Dec. 30, 2021, the most destructive fire in Colorado state history.

CU Boulder researchers offer insight into everything from how a changing climate will impact water supplies, crops and landscapes to how best to protect homes and our health from fire and smoke.

Wildfire Research

Wildfire workshop highlights CU Boulder expertise, leadership

More than 50 policymakers, researchers, faculty and graduate students recently participated in the first-ever Wildland Urban Interface & Wildfire Workshop.

Weeks later, potentially harmful chemicals lingered in homes affected by Marshall Fire

In the wake of the devastating Marshall Fire, a team of chemists and engineers from CU Boulder undertook a first-of-its-kind study to explore homes that survived the blaze. Their results reveal the potential health hazards that wildfires can leave behind in buildings. 

To prevent the next major wildfire, we need a ‘Smokey Bear for the suburbs’

With a thick green carpet of fuel covering much of the West after a rainy spring, CU Boulder fire ecologist Jennifer Balch is calling on people to do their part to prevent the next megafire.

Promoting public impact: The Marshall Fire grants

Six grants and one sponsorship have been awarded by the Office for Outreach and Engagement to support community-engaged scholarship connected to the Marshall Fire. The grants are in partnership with the Research & Innovation Office and the Natural Hazards Center.

US fires 4 times larger, 3 times more frequent since 2000

The CIRES Earth Lab has confirmed a palpable change in fire dynamics already suspected by many: Large fires have not only become more common, they are also spreading into new areas, impacting land that previously did not burn.

Forest fires increasingly affecting rivers and streams—for better and worse

Forest fires can have a significant long-term effect on the amount of water flowing in nearby rivers and streams. With forest fires on the rise in the western U.S., that phenomenon is increasingly influencing the region’s water supply as well as the risk for flooding and landslides.

Hotter, drier nights mean more runaway fires

Historically, night is the critical time for slowing a speeding fire, and nature's wildfire brakes are failing. According to CIRES Earth Lab research, nighttime fires have become more intense, as hot, dry nights are more commonplace.

Engineers deploy drones to survey Marshall Fire, gather lessons for future disasters

Just after first responders extinguished the flames of the Marshall Fire, a team of engineers from across the country hit the ground in an urgent effort: to collect data on the disaster before it disappears for good.

What the Marshall Fire can teach us as we prepare for future climate catastrophes

CU Boulder researchers from across campus have pivoted to study the aftermath of the Marshall Fire, hoping to learn from a tragedy in their own backyard and help prepare the country for the next “climate fire.”

If you really listen, survivors and emergency responders will tell you what they need

Survivors may face what sociologist Lori Peek calls "the long tail of disaster-related trauma." She argues these survivors need mental health resources and support from friends and family long after the television cameras are gone.

After the fire: A look at the Marshall Fire’s community impact

In the Marshall Fire, approximately 155 homes of CU Boulder community members were damaged or destroyed. A dozen CU police officers helped evacuate the area. Tens of thousands of dollars went into the faculty, staff and student emergency funds. Learn about the impacts—by the numbers.

Amid wildfires and a pandemic, here’s how to keep your indoor air clean

It’s no secret: The air quality is bad in Colorado this summer. Learn about the easy and effective ways we can keep our indoor air clean from ozone, wildfire smoke and COVID-19. 

CU Boulder receives $1.1 million in EPA grants to reduce public exposure to wildland fire smoke

Researchers have been awarded $1.1 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for two projects to help school districts and communities reduce exposure to harmful pollution from wildland fire smoke.

How fire today will impact water tomorrow

In light of recent Colorado fires, floods and landslides, environmental experts Fernando Rosario-Ortiz and Ben Livneh discuss how fire may shape the future of water in the West. 

Is wildfire smoke bad for your health?

With fires blazing across Colorado, California and Oregon, much of the Western United States is awash in smoke this summer. How does the smoke impact our health? Is it OK to exercise outdoors? What can we do to protect ourselves indoors? Colleen Reid has answers.

Mountain residents underestimate wildfire risk, overestimate preparedness

Hannah Brenkert-Smith studies the role of residents' choices in wildfire risk, working to improve mitigation programs. Her most recent work near Bailey, Colorado, concludes residents often overestimate their preparation and underestimate their risk.

What could such a green spring mean for fire season?

So far, 2021 is one of the 10 wettest years on record since 1872 in the Denver area. Chelsea Nagy discusses what a wet spring and resulting plant growth in the Front Range could mean for the rest of the year.

Combined bark beetle outbreaks and wildfire spell uncertain future for forests

Bark beetle outbreaks and wildfire alone are not a death sentence for Colorado’s beloved forests—but when combined, their toll may become more permanent, CU Boulder research shows.

Forests scorched by wildfire unlikely to recover, may convert to grasslands

A new study of 22 burn areas across 710 square miles found that forests are not recovering from fires as well as they used to, and many regions will be unsuitable for ponderosa pine and Douglas fir in the coming decades.

Drought & Extreme Heat Research

Report outlines emerging technologies to improve Colorado water management

A new report from CU Boulder and Colorado State University outlines how a variety of emerging technologies can help water managers, landowners and policymakers improve western water management in the face of severe, ongoing drought.

Increased winter snowmelt threatens western water resources

More snow is melting during winter across the West, a concerning trend that could impact everything from ski conditions to fire danger and agriculture, according to CU Boulder analysis of 40 years of data.

With shrinking snowpack, drought predictability melting away

Research from CU Boulder and CIRES suggests that during the 21st century, our ability to predict drought using snow will literally melt away. 

New grant supports interdisciplinary research on ‘the critical zone’ and the future of Western water

Three CU Boulder faculty are principal investigators on a new five-year, $6.9 million National Science Foundation grant to study the “critical zone”—from Earth’s bedrock to tree canopy top—in the American West.

Heat waves could cause 10 times more crop damage than now projected

Heat waves, which are projected to become more frequent and intense as the century progresses, could cause as much as 10 times more crop damage than is now projected, a team of researchers led by CU Boulder has found.

Fire Safety Tips

While many wildfires are caused by lightning strikes, others are human caused (e.g., careless cigarette disposal, fireworks, camp fires). Please use extreme caution when enjoying the outdoors, within the city of Boulder and in the surrounding areas. Make a plan to immediately leave the area if threatened by a wildfire and follow instructions from firefighting and emergency management officials.

Fireworks pose a significant fire risk. The possession or discharge of fireworks, firecrackers or skyrockets is prohibited in the city of Boulder and Boulder County. Violations of law are enforced under the CU Student Code of Conduct and can result in sanctions such as probation, fines or educational courses.

If you find yourself in possession of fireworks, you can turn them into any of the local Boulder fire departments––no questions asked! The fire department will dispose of the fireworks in a responsible manner for you. 

    Our Experts

    Faculty experts from CU Boulder are available to discuss wildfires, drought, extreme heat and more. To arrange media interviews, please contact cunews@colorado.eduFind more media resources.

    Jennifer Balch

    Jennifer Balch

    Associate Professor of Geography
    Expertise: Fire ecology, land use/landcover change, global change ecology, tropical forest ecology

    Holly Barnard

    Holly Barnard

    Associate Professor of Geography, fellow of INSTAAR
    Expertise: PI on CU Boulder’s NSF-funded Western water grant, vegetation and water flow dynamics, hydrologic sciences, ecohydrology, forest hydrology, tree physiology

    Ben Livneh

    Ben Livneh

    Assistant Professor of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering; CIRES fellow; part of NOAA’s Drought Task Force
    Expertise: Snowpack related to drought and seasonal water supply forecasts, affect of historical and projected future climate conditions on anticipated snowpack and streamflow

    Noah Moltoch

    Noah Moltoch

    Associate Professor of Geography, fellow at INSTAAR, head of INSTAAR’s Mountain Hydrology Group
    Expertise: Snowpack conditions, how these conditions may change in the future with climate change and the impact of these changes on water availability, recreation and wildfire hazard

    Keith Musselman

    Keith Musselman

    Research Associate at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR)
    Expertise: Availability of freshwater in seasonally snow-covered mountains and forests, hydrology, climate change

    Chelsea Nagy

    Chelsea Nagy

    CIRES Program Manager/Research Scientist
    Expertise: Human-ecosystem interactions, invasive grass species, altered fire regimes, biomass burning, fossil fuel combustion

    Lori Peek

    Lori Peek

    Director of the Natural Hazards Center, Professor of Sociology
    Expertise: Hazards and disaster mitigation, safety and preparedness; vulnerable populations in disaster; school safety guidance

    Imtiaz Rangwala

    Imtiaz Rangwala

    CIRES Research Scientist
    Expertise: Regional climate change, drought and weather extremes

    Colleen Reid

    Colleen Reid

    Assistant Professor of Geography
    Expertise: Climate change and human health, environmental and social epidemiology, spatial exposure assessment 

    Fernando Rosario-Ortiz

    Fernando Rosario-Ortiz

    Professor of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering; Director of the Environmental Engineering Program
    Expertise: Impact of wildfires on water quality, environmental chemistry

    Natasha Stavros

    Natasha Stavros

    Director of Earth Lab Analytics Hub
    Expertise: Fire ecology, complex systems science, data science, image processing, information technologies

    Thomas Veblen

    Thomas Veblen

    Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geography
    Expertise: Forest ecology and vegetation dynamics in relation to natural and anthropogenic disturbances, especially climate variability; biogeography; conservation

    Christine Wiedinmyer

    Christine Wiedinmyer

    CIRES Associate Director for Science, Professor of Mechanical Engineering
    Expertise: Emissions of trace gases and particles to the atmosphere and how these emissions impact atmospheric composition, air quality and climate; effects of global change

    The Conversation