A 125 Square Mile Wildfire in Colorado Seen From Space

An area twice the size of the District of Columbia has already burnt.

A 125-square-mile fire is blazing its way throughout Colorado forests. That's a fire about double the size of the District of Columbia. According to the Colorado Office of Emergency Management, the fire is zero percent contained.

The three wildfires that make up what is being called the West Fork Complex have been burning since the beginning of the month, and officials in the area don't think it can be contained without some help from nature. One incident commander told the AP that the West Fork fire "likely will burn for months."

A separate fire in the Black Forest was just contained last week. It killed two people and destroyed 500 homes.

What's propelling these fires are dry conditions made worse by strong winds and an ongoing spruce-beetle infestation. The beetles tunnel under the bark, laying eggs that will eventually kill the tree. According to one Fox affiliate in the region, "Spruce beetles have killed as much as 70 percent of the trees in the affected area, essentially creating 'vertical kilns.' "

Last year, National Journal's Sophie Quinton went to Colorado to investigate the threat of the beetles, and found a consensus among scientists that climate change is to blame:

North America is witnessing the largest pine-beetle epidemic in recorded history. From Canada's Yukon Territory to New Mexico, pine trees by the hundreds of millions are succumbing to a fungus that the beetles carry. The pine needles of infected trees first turn a violent red, then they fall, and, finally, the dead tree topples over. Year by year, communities have watched a scourge advance across mountainsides and through neighborhoods, trees turning from green to red to gray. The beetles now attack 12 pine species, from the high-elevation whitebark pine to the lower-elevation ponderosa and piñon. The blight has devastated 3.3 million acres in Colorado alone since the 1990s.

Beetles kill, die off, and regenerate, all of which is part of a lodgepole pine forest's natural life cycle. But human activity helped set the stage for the current epidemic. Decades of fire suppression have left the West with dense stands of vulnerable, elderly trees. Climate has also played a role. Frigid winters that usually kill the beetles have become, over the past 20 years, the exception rather than the rule. Earlier snowmelt and longer summers have altered the beetles' range and life cycle; they now attack pines at higher altitudes and latitudes, and they reproduce twice a year instead of once. Earlier springs and a series of dry years have also weakened trees, turning them into ideal beetle food.

Wildfires can cause damages in the billions of dollars. In 2011, drought and wildfire in Texas cost $10 billion in damages.

Here's the detail of what NASA's Earth Observatory saw from space:


And here's what the fires looks like from the Earth:

Wildfire smoke plumes above Del Norte Peak on Sunday, June 23, 2013, near Del Norte, Colo. A wildfire near a popular summer retreat in southern Colorado continues to be driven by winds and fueled by dead trees in a drought-stricken area. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) The Black Forest Fire burns northeast of Colorado Springs, Colo., Tuesday, June 11, 2013, as nearby residents Amy O'Connor (left) and Nathalie Bartleson watch it creep toward the tree line. The fire consumed an estimated 7,500 acres, damaged 40-60 structures, and forced the evacuation of thousands of people. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller) A refrigerator stands in the ashes of a home destroyed by the Black Forest wildfire north of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 17, 2013. More than 470 homes burned in the wildfire that started last Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Firefighters stage in a residential area in South Fork, Colo., as they monitor a wildfire that burns west of town on Friday evening June 21, 2013. The town was evacuated and U.S. 160 that passes through it was closed. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski) Blackened areas define the indiscriminate path of a wildfire that destroyed some homes and left others untouched in one neighborhood in the densely wooded Black Forest area northeast of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 13, 2013. (AP Photo/John Wark)

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post did not correctly distinguish the Black Forest fire from the West Fork Complex fire.