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Eagle River at Camp Hale on Aug. 16, 2022, near Leadville. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Back in April and only four months after the state’s most destructive and costliest fire tore through two suburban towns, Colorado officials warned that this year could be the worst wildfire year yet. 

Forecasters feared above-average temperatures that could push many parts of Colorado into more severe drought conditions and heighten wildfire risk. While the state did have a hotter-than-normal summer — this past July ranked as fifth-hottest ever — there have been far fewer wildfires this year compared to last. 

The quiet season so far has improved firefighter morale, allowed for more time for training, put a focus on mitigation efforts and freed up Colorado’s resources to help neighboring states battle wildfires.

We can thank the monsoonal rains for all of that. 

Most of the state saw above-average precipitation the past three months, maps from the Colorado Climate Center show. July ranked the 18th-wettest month for the state in 128 years, when data first started being collected.

Through Wednesday, 745 wildfires had been reported across the state, burning about 40,722 acres, according to preliminary data from the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. 

While the fire season is still ongoing, it’s a sharp decline from last year when there were 6,679 fires reported in Colorado, burning 56,056 acres, according to the center’s annual report. 

The number of large fires is down, too. In the past three months, during what is historically considered to be the hottest and driest in Colorado, only one wildfire grew above 1,000 acres, data shows. (In 2021, five wildfires between June and August grew above 1,000 acres, burning more than 24,000 acres collectively.)

“I would guess that it’s probably going to be a below-average year when all is said and done, knowing that we still have a few months ahead of us this fall where things can change,” said Vaughn Jones, chief of the state’s wildland management section of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control. 

On average, 5,618 wildfires are reported in Colorado each year, with about 237,480 acres burned, according to data collected between 2011 to 2020 by the RMACC.

Monsoonal moisture this summer helped to alleviate short-term drought conditions for most of Colorado. Nearly 13% of the state is experiencing no drought conditions, compared to three months ago when some level of drought gripped the entire state, according to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

Less than a quarter of the state is experiencing conditions categorized as severe to extreme drought, down from 60% three months ago, data shows. 

In mid-April, dry fuels led to several large fires, including five that sparked in the Eastern Plains the same day. A raging grass fire quickly grew to 9,000 acres, scorching more than half of a ranch east of Lamar. A fire east of Yuma quickly grew to 4,500 acres before it was extinguished. A wildfire near Hugo grew to about 3,800 acres and another fire in Kiowa County was reported at 2,400 acres. About 460 acres caught fire near Sterling in northeast Colorado.

But a steady stream of summer storms helped quench parched soil and plants, and greatly reduced fire activity through the summer. Much of the eastern part of the state is still facing severe drought conditions, but less so than three months ago. 

“We went through June pretty unscathed. There were no really large or significant wildfires, and any wildfires that have popped up have been pretty easy to get under control,” said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist. “So it’s been good thus far, but things can change quickly.”

According to the Climate Prediction Center, Colorado is expected to have above-average temperatures and see below-average precipitation through November. Either could undo the benefits of a wetter summer, Bolinger said. 

Much of the state had a warmer-than-average August, with the largest jumps recorded across the Front Range and southwestern Colorado, data from the Colorado Climate Center shows. 

If temperatures remain high, drought conditions are likely to return to the Front Range and could prolong drought in parts of the most northeastern tip of Colorado, which has largely missed out on the summer’s monsoon season, Bolinger said. 

Ten days without precipitation, causing vegetation to dry up, can put an area at higher risk for wildfires, she said. Winds and lower relative humidity levels also increase the likelihood of a fire sparking.

“And those are the days that are concerning,” Bolinger said. “So we definitely are not out of the woods.”

‘We need to take advantage of times like this’

Earlier this year, Jones at the Division of Fire Prevention and Control and other state officials were anticipating what could be “one of the tougher” wildfire seasons, but a large snowstorm mid-May, which dumped up to 20 inches of snow in some parts of state, helped dampen some fears. 

“That was really kind of a game changer and really saved us, frankly, in a lot of ways,” he said. 

Not long after, the rain started to fall and continued through into August, offering a stark contrast to the warm and extremely dry summer of 2020, when a combination of high temperatures, high winds and low relative humidity led to the worst wildfire year in state history. 

While the number of fires reported in a year doesn’t always track with the acreage burned, Colorado has seen only a small fraction of fires this year (745) compared with 2020, when 6,761 fires were reported and 744,120 acres burned. (Since small jurisdictions are often slow in reporting fires, the number of fires recorded for 2022 will likely increase by the end of the year — but it’s not clear how much those little fires will add to this year’s acreage.) . 

“We still had a lot of fires for folks to respond to, but because of some of our early detection efforts and some of the additional resources we had and then the better conditions, kept those fires small,” Jones said of this year’s wildfire activity.

The state assumed the firefighting efforts and cost for five fires so far this year, a slight increase from three last year, but a decline from 16 fires in 2020, data from the division shows. 

The state’s aerial fleet, which grew this year ahead of a daunting wildfire outlook, was an asset to fighting spring fires in the San Luis Valley in southwestern Colorado. The aircraft also served as “added security” in case a large wildfire sparked and federal resources weren’t available, Jones said. 

Because of the smaller number of fires, Colorado was able to lend its helicopters and air tankers to fight fires in Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska this year. 

“When we can let a portion of our resources go, we see it as an obligation to reciprocate back to those other states,” Jones said, pointing to the 2018 and 2020 fire seasons when Colorado was “close to having resources from every state” helping fight its fires.

The decreased fire activity this summer has also allowed for more time to focus on mitigation efforts, along with training opportunities for state firefighters, he said. The number of hours spent on training in the state’s type 2 helicopter jumped to 122 hours this year, compared to about 28 in 2021, according to the division’s records of flight hours. 

Wildland firefighters have also been sent to help fires burning in other states, making sure they stay qualified and honing their skills, Jones said. 

The division was not able to provide an estimate as to how much money – if any – was saved from the reduced fire activity across the state in time for publication. 

With longer and more intense fire seasons, which require firefighters to spend extended periods away from their families, firefighters are at extreme risk of burnout, Jones said. The past few months have helped boost morale among the ranks. 

“This time of the year, it really is an opportunity to reset, have a little more time at home and a little more work-life balance,” he said. “At some point though, they trained to do this job, they like to help their communities.”

But if prior years are any indication, some of the worst wildfires can happen later in the year. The Dec. 3 Marshall fire in Boulder County is the latest reminder that wildfires can spark at any time.

Colorado reached a grim milestone in September 2020, when two fires burned more than 10,000 acres each, setting a record for large fires late in the year. The Mullen fire, which started Sept. 17 in Wyoming, scorched more than 20,000 acres in Colorado. The East Troublesome fire, which was ignited about a month later, torched more than 200,000 acres, killed two people and destroyed more than 300 homes.

“Depending on whether you call it climate change, global warming, extended drought, whatever you want to call it, there’s no doubt we are having more intensive fire seasons and that trend is projected to continue as we move into the future,” Jones said.

While the summer rains helped delay fire potential, they also helped grasses and other vegetation to grow tall. As the plants dry out and go dormant with colder temperatures, they will become fuel for fires, Jones said. 

Even if this year ends up being a reprieve from the dire predictions of last spring, the importance of being prepared for a wildfire doesn’t go away. 

“We need to take advantage of times like this — that starts with the local homeowners all the way up to the county, state and federal government — to take advantage of the time to get mitigation work done,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do moving ahead in the future and we need to keep at it.” 

Olivia Prentzel

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer for The Colorado Sun. Email: oliviaprentzel@coloradosun.com