COLORADO SPRINGS — 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 Thursday 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 in Thursday’s report 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
Morgan and others said they felt prepared for the season after taking lessons from last year and after getting more financial and physical resources from newly passed bills and budgetary items, including a bolstered air fleet.
Funding for a new Firehawk helicopter has been approved by the State Legislature and Governor. It is for fast attacks on newly started fires. "Aggressive initial attack is what we should be doing on threatening fire. What that means is we're trying to provide more resources to the local fire chiefs and the local Sheriff's to keep fires from getting large," said Morgan. The helicopter adds to other air resources.
Contracts for Type 2 helicopters have been extended by 110 days, the DFPC will have a Type 1 helicopter contracted for a year as a newly budgeted Firehawk helicopter is readied for 2022, the state will operate two Multi-Mission Aircraft, at least two Single Engine Air Tankers and one Large Air Tanker. (Learn how to recognize firefighting aircraft here.)
“Approximately two-point-nine million people live in Colorado’s wildland-urban interface and that has increased from two million just five years ago,” said Polis. Colorado’s rapidly expanding population has to be considered in many facets of a comprehensive wildfire plan. Fires threaten homes and property. A large number of wildfires are caused by people being careless. Residents of Colorado are also the most important fire prevention resource.
Officials said Thursday one of the main points of prevention will be Coloradans themselves and visitors to the state. About 87% 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.
Gov. Jared Polis asked people to take “every precaution necessary” to be responsible and cautious during the fire season, including being mindful of campfires and managing one’s property to mitigate fire potential.
“A seemingly minor act can cause great devastation in our state,” Polis said.
(Denver7's Stephanie Butzer and Blair Miller contributed to this report)
Offering the perspective of 2020 vs 2021 outlook
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)
U.S. Forest Service officials tell News5 work has already started to see what kind of mitigation techniques can be used to try to eliminate some of the dead trees and wildfire fuel that make for such large events.
For example, the Nov 2020 Bear Creek Fire had the potential to cause great damage to the southwest of Colorado Springs. Firefighters faced fast-moving flames in dry vegetation and windy conditions. They were aided by wildfire mitigation efforts in the wildland open space, along with work at homes next to the open space.
"Reduced the fuels, reduced the spread of fire, reduced the rate of spread,” said Battalion Chief Steve Wilch with Colorado Springs Fire Department, “Mitigation efforts helped keep flames lower to the ground and out of the crowns of trees.” Firefighters are better able to go on the offensive against flames when they are lower to the ground.
The Colorado Springs City Forester teamed with the Colorado Springs Fire Department for the mitigation work in the Bear Creek area. Similar work has happened on hundreds of acres of wildland opens space in other parts of Colorado Springs. Mitigation work has been a years-long process.
There is also an education effort by the fire department to get homeowners in and along wildland areas to mitigate. The neighborhood spared from the Bear Creek Fire is one with extensive participation in mitigation. “We worked hard over the years I mean to clean trees, to clear space, to put in rock walls," said Erlander
The hard work just paid off. "These homeowners have come in and really helped the firefighters and it's made their job easier,” said Colorado Springs Fire Department, Wildfire Mitigation Specialist, Ashley Whitworth.” The fire burned up to many homes but was stopped before any caught fire.
(News5's Bill Folsom contributed to this report)
Wildland-urban interface remains a concern in Colorado Springs
November 2020's Bear Creek Fire renewing concerns of 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.