COLORADO SPRINGS — When it comes to wildfires, Colorado had its worse year on record in 2020. And while fires can occur naturally, some do not. According to the National Park Service, about 85% of wildfires are caused by humans, and officials are predicting increased tourism in Colorado as the pandemic winds down, as well as continued population growth in the years to come.
Colorado Springs has experienced major fires, like Waldo Canyon, that spread quickly, taking out hundreds of homes and claiming lives. More recently, the Bear Creek Fire threatened homes on the westside but was stopped within a day without damage to homes, thanks to fire mitigation, according to the Colorado Springs Fire Department.
The good news is home and business owners can do their part in preventing fires from spreading. Colorado Springs Wildfire Mitigation works hard to inform residents on how they can be proactive in protecting their homes and the community from wildfires.
“This can be anything from stucco siding on a house and composite building materials on a deck to raking leaves and needles, clearing and covering gutters, as well as putting one to three feet of rock out from their house instead of mulch. So, all of those different items will really help make their home safe,” said Melissa Hoffman, Colorado Springs Wildfire Mitigation Program Coordinator.
It’s also important to removed dead, diseased trees, keep grass and weeds to a maximum height of four inches, and store firewood at least fifteen feet away from your home.
“Hazardous materials such as your conifers or your junipers we don’t like to see those planted within fifteen feet of the home and that’s true because they have a very high oil and resin content and so that means they will burn very hot and very fast,” said Hoffman.
For more information on how you can protect your homes from wildfires, you can visit here.
Wildland-urban interface remains a concern in Colorado Springs
The Wildland-Urban Interface, or WUI, defined as areas where human improvements are built close to or within natural terrain and flammable vegetation.
In 2018, the Colorado State Forest Service said about half of all Coloradans live in areas at risk for wildfires, and 2.9 million live in WUI areas, a number that continues to rise.
The primary concern in these areas is vegetation density. Homeowners and property owners should pay attention to plants on your property. Lighter density within 30 feet of a structure helps to reduce the chance of a fire igniting.
In 2018, Several factors contributed to the nearly 50 percent increase over the past five years in numbers of Coloradans considered to be living in wildfire risk zones. One is an overall increase in the number of people living in WUI areas. Another is better, more refined data to also consider the risk to homes in or adjacent to agricultural land or grasslands. Changes in land use and vegetation patterns were also considered.
When News5 spoke with wildfire mitigation experts they said it's important that property owners don't overlook the damage that can be done by grass fires.
“People mistakenly think of wildfire like forest fires, big tree fires, but we have several wildfires, especially in the State of Colorado, that are simply grass fires,” said Colorado Springs Wildfire Mitigation Section leader Jeremy Taylor, “and look how many grasses we have throughout our town, throughout our city, and throughout our county as a whole. That creates significant risk.”
Colorado offers a Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal, also known as CO-WRAP, that helps people to see if they live in a wildfire-prone area and offers fire prevention tips.
The City of Colorado Springs offers a similar tool.
It is going to be another summer with a higher than normal risk for wildfires in Colorado. “A seemingly minor act can cause great devastation in our state,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis. The Governor and state fire prevention leaders met in early April to discuss Colorado's fire forecast and plan to prevent more massive fires like the ones that have scorched Colorado in recent years.
The three largest fires in recorded Colorado history burned during the summer of 2020. "We're seeing a similar type of framing to look at for 2021…a lot like 2020," said Mike Morgan, the director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “Since the 1970s, our fire seasons have expanded. They’re over 78 days longer. We’re having fire years, not fire seasons anymore. ”
Should current long-term forecasts hold up, the DFPC says southeast Colorado is likely to see above-average fire potential into April, and the rest of southern Colorado could see “an earlier than normal start to the core fire season” in late May.
As the snowpack melts, there will be above-average large fire potential across southern Colorado that expands northward into June and to the majority of the Western Slope by July, according to the report. Combined with the drier conditions and concerns about forest health, fire risk is expected in even Colorado’s higher elevations.
The DFPC noted that the 2020 outlook issued last April was “very similar to this year’s current outlook” – with confidence in some of the early season forecasts and less confidence after July.
The officials said they should have a better grasp on how the season will shape up after seeing how much precipitation the state receives in April and May, and again during the monsoon season, which generally runs from mid-June into September.
The difference for 2021 is a beefed-up prevention and suppression strategy. "We are actually in the middle of a metamorphosis of the change of the culture of how we respond to wildland fire," said Colorado Department of Public Safety, Executive Director, Stan Hilkey.
Did you know? Track fires nationally with InciWeb
News5 Meteorologist Sam Schreier helped to put Colorado's 2020 wildfires into perspective and why we might be set up for another historic year in 2021.
"We had 1,078 fires reported and we had about 625,000 acres burned. If you put all of the areas that burned in 2020 in one spot it would've burned all the way through Colorado Springs, surrounding towns, Fort Carson, and even a little further back into Teller County," Schreier said. "If in 2020 we burned an area as big as the Pikes Peak Region, we know we're already in a drought again. We continued that drought last year and we had all these fires."
Schreier says he has some major concerns about how things are shaping up in 2021.
Dry conditions coupled with invasive species like bark beetles are killing trees and turn them into more fuel for quick-moving and massive wildfires.
News5 spoke with one of the leaders of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office of the United States Forest Service who says on top of natural threats, the growing population in Colorado means more opportunities for mistakes and man-made fires.
"Population increase of course in the front range and those types of areas is really a concern.
With the COVID situation from the past year, it did seem to push a lot more people out into the woods and out onto the national forest. Our law enforcement officers had a saying and an observation that every day was like a weekend and weekends were like the 4th of July," said Danny Bryant of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Regional Office.
(News5's Patrick Nelson and Meteorologist Sam Schreier contributed to this report)