Unprecedented wildfires require unprecedented responses, and state officials in charge of battling large-scale wildfires believe they are ready for the coming months and the wildfires that will no doubt take place.
But the wildfire forecast issued Thursday by the state’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control warned of above-average fire activity in southeastern Colorado through June, and a potential for large fires in southern Colorado and on the Western Slope throughout the summer.
State officials were joined at Centennial Airport Thursday by Gov. Jared Polis, who noted that Colorado experienced a challenging and tragic fire season last year, with hundreds of thousands of acres burned, three of the largest wildfires in history, and with at least two lives lost.
“We used to talk about a fire season; it’s now a year-round phenomenon,” Polis said. The state is taking steps for a proactive approach to battling the fires. These trends and the drought are not anomalies, Polis said. “They’re a harbinger of the future.”
The warning is most dire for the 2.9 million people who live in the wildland-urban interface. That’s where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with wildland vegetation, according to the Colorado State Forest Service at Colorado State University.
The good news, from Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Department of Public Safety, is that he’s “never seen a more state of readiness than we have today. We are in the middle of a metamorphosis" to change the change of the culture of how the state responds to wildland fire.
Mike Morgan, chief of the division of fire prevention and control at DPS, pointed out that 20 of the largest fires in state history have occurred in the last 20 years. The top three were all in 2020: East Troublesome, at 208,913 acres; Cameron Peak at 193,812 acres and Pine Gulch at 139,007 acres.
Cameron Peak, near Fort Collins, destroyed 220 residences and more than 400 total structures, Morgan said.
Extreme drought, hazardous fuel accumulations and hot, dry conditions create fast-moving large-scale fires. Morgan said. As a result, the division is developing strategies to be prepared for longer, more destructive wildland fires. That’s contained in the state’s wildfire preparedness plan, which Morgan called a holistic approach to wildfires that includes wildfire suppression and response, fuels and forest management and mitigation. That plan is based on lessons learned from 2020 as well as from wildfires in previous years, he said.
Those lessons include looking at a fire problem as a duration vs. impact issue. The longer the fire burns, the greater the impact, he said, including fire suppression costs, loss of life, risk to health and safety and watershed destruction. The new approach, which includes new resources, is an aggressive initial attack, with more resources to local fire chiefs and sheriffs to keep fires from getting large. Spend a little more money today and get less long-duration events, he explained.
While the state lost 600,000 acres in 2020, there were wins by initiating aggressive attacks. He pointed to a fire at Chatfield Reservoir, which cost $300,000 to fight but was contained early, as well as the Elephant Butte fire in Evergreen, where initial aggressive attacks kept a small fire from turning into a catastrophic one.
Following one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, the state must increase its capacity to respond to these incidents, Morgan said. The legislature has helped, with approval of the purchase of a Firehawk helicopter (a Blackhawk helicopter that has been retrofitted for wildfire purposes), additional money for more aviation support including crews, and adding more days to the contracts for several air tankers and helicopters.
"We're hoping that our monsoons will come in for April and May" and bring the forecasts for wildfires down, he said.
The long-range forecast indicates above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation through June, which will result in a continuation of drought conditions across the state, and the emergence of above-average fire potential over portions of southeast Colorado, Morgan said.
The warm and dry projections suggest a normal start to “core fire season” (the four-month period in which wildfires are at their peak) in the second half of May across all of the southern half of Colorado.
Continuation of those conditions will intensify drought earlier than normal, Morgan reported, which will result in above-average large fire potential, expanding northward during the month of June and affecting the majority of the Western Slope by July, he said.
Some preparedness comes from “prepositioning” resources; Morgan noted that eastern Colorado is under a red-flag warning, so there are resources (meaning equipment and people) on standby in case of a wildfire.
Hilkey added that the state needs the help of its citizens to prevent wildfires.
“The public plays a valuable role in preventing wildfires,” he said, noting that 87% of wildfires nationwide are human-caused. “We want people to take extra precautions before venturing out.
"We are calling on all of you that live, work and play in Colorado to reduce the impact of fires by being vigilant, respecting fire restrictions and to protect your property from wildfire," Morgan added. Given that May is Wildfire Awareness Month, he said to be aware of fire conditions when you go to different parts of the state.