DENVER — Three of Colorado’s largest wildfires scorched through hundreds of thousands of acres in 2020 and now, state firefighters are implementing the strategies learned last year into the state’s fire fighting plan in 2021.
Over 600,000 acres burned in Colorado from around 5,300 fires during the summer and fall of 2020. The state’s top fire experts expect 2021 to be similar, due to continued dry conditions and fast snowmelt this Spring.
“The extreme drought conditions, hazerdous fuel accumulations create fast moving, large scale fires,” said Mike Morgan, the director for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
The term “fire season” is no longer relevant in Colorado. With large fires breaking out even in winter months, fire threat is a year-round concern. What firefighters call the “core” fire season, the warmer months when the snow has mostly melted have extended. Morgan said in the 1970’s to 80’s they’d bring on firefighters, mostly college students, for a four-month stint. Now, the state has added over two months, 78 days, to the core fire season.
Climate Change is one of the fuels to the large fires, as 15 of the state’s 20 largest fires have occurred since 2012. Faster melting snow, dryer conditions, and weak to non-existent monsoons have contributed to an environment in the mountainous areas of the state ripe for burning.
Population growth is also behind the destructive nature of the fires. Governor Jared Polis said that people living in the fire-prone wildland-urban interface has increased from 2 million to 2.9 million in five years, putting several people and homes at high risk of fire.
“These trends and the drought are not anomalies. They’re really harboring of the future with climate change and significantly increased population,” Gov. Polis said.
Gov. Polis pointed out that the state’s population is ready to surge to over 8 million by 2040.
More money and more aggression in initial fire responses leads Morgan to believe that the state will be able to get ahead of the most destructive fires this summmer and in the future.
“What that means is we’re trying to provide more resources to the local chiefs and local sheriffs’ to keep fires from getting large,” Morgan said.
Morgan said the CDFPC has marked the state into quadrants to divide resources. They will look at the weather, snowpack, soil moisture, and other conditions to gauge where a fire is more likely to break out, and have the resources nearby to respond more quickly when it does.
A new Firehawk helicopter can carry 1,000 gallons for fire supression-more than three times most fire fighting helicopters the state has. The state is also extending its exclusive contracts with fire fighting aircraft, most extending three months to over 230 days to accomodate the core fire season that’s growing longer and more destructive.
“Colorado is leading the nation,” Morgan said. “We spend a little more money today, but we don’t have as many long-duration events as a result of that.”
The La Nina weather system largely favored the northern areas of the state and some of the western slope. This leaves Morgan to warn that Southern Colorado will enter above-average fire danger around mid-May with that danger creeping north into June and to the west by July.