Colorado wildfire experts are predicting a slightly-below-average fire season, thanks to high snowpack, decent moisture and lower temperatures forecast throughout the summer and fall.
But, to put that in perspective, below-average for Colorado means about 6,000 wildfires and more than 100,000 acres burned.
“While we appear to have a little quieter fire season ahead of us, it does not eliminate the challenges that we as Coloradans and first-responders need to do to be prepared,” said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
The annual wildfire forecast and preparedness plan, required by state law, was presented this week to Gov. Jared Polis and Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, who toured a hangar at Centennial Airport, a single-engine air tanker and a state-owned plane equipped with sensors that can detect a campfire some 30 miles away.
The forecast comes as a relief after last year’s fire season, which was among the worst in Colorado history. The state spent about $40 million — not counting local or federal funds — last year as 250,000 acres were scorched. Of the 20 worst fires in state history, five occurred in 2018.
The wildfire forecast is based mostly on snowpack, which is about 140% of average this year compared with only 40% last year. Another major factor is the meteorology forecast for the summer and fall, which predicts a wetter-than-average season with lower temperatures.
State fire officials also consult experts in forest health to gauge the fuel for wildfires. In 2012, a spring greenup sprouted lush foliage, which grew parched and dried out when drought came, providing the fuel for a catastrophic fire season. This year, much of the spring growth was “smashed by a good snowpack,” and isn’t expected to dry up too much this summer, Morgan said.
Still, even an average fire season in Colorado is serious. The number of people living in the “wildland urban interface” — subdivisions and single homes in the forest — has grown to 2.9 million from 2 million five years ago.
And the number of fires in this state that grew large enough to require state assistance has increased dramatically in the past four decades. In the 1970s, just one fire overwhelmed local authorities and required state help. That number grew to eight in the 1980s, then 15 in the 1990s.
And so far in the 2000s, the state has assisted local agencies in 74 fires — 18 of them last year alone. All the while, the standards for state assistance haven’t changed, the governor said.
“What has changed are two things: increased population and climate change,” Polis told a crowd gathered at the hangar Tuesday. “Both of those have factored into this tremendous increase we’ve had in fires that exceed the local ability of counties to deal with and why the state and federal governments and our partners need to step up to deal with fires.”
Every one of the 20 worst fires in Colorado history happened in this decade.
The state Division of Fire Prevention and Control received an additional $3 million in the latest state budget to expand staff to work on fire prevention year-round instead of only seasonally.
The agency also will get $400,000 for drone detection, meant to stop the private drones that fly through fire zones and halt work by firefighting aircraft. And it is slated to receive another $400,000 for fire safety in schools and health-care buildings.
Morgan said he is working to extend contracts for two single-engine tankers that dump water on wildfires. The state doesn’t own the planes, but contracts them for 150 days per year. With fire season stretching into November and beyond, Morgan wants a plane year-round.
As “the fire problem continues to escalate,” he said, the state continues to improve its collaboration with local and federal agencies, as well as “how to do a better job of initial attack.”
“Last year was a challenge. A lot of sleepless nights,” he said. “We are very blessed that we ended last year, the second-worst fire season in Colorado’s history, and we didn’t kill anybody and we didn’t have any major injuries.”