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The Black Forest fire, June 12, 2013, in Colorado Springs. New legislation by Rep. Joe Neguse would direct billions into jobs helping restore forests and reducing the threat of wildfire. (Photo by Air Force Capt. Darin Overstreet/RELEASED)

High temperatures and an early snowmelt are causing growing drought worries in Colorado and have firefighters bracing for an unpredictable summer already complicated by the coronavirus.

At least 76% of Colorado now is experiencing drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with 11% of the state, mostly in southeast and south-central regions, under extreme drought conditions that bring increased wildfire risk and low reservoir levels. This time last year, just 15.7% of the state was abnormally dry.

“If you look at what the drought looks like, especially along the Front Range, we are doing OK today, but that quickly changes,” said Don Lombardi, fire chief for the West Metro Fire Protection District. “If you look at the bulk of Colorado, it’s anywhere from dry to extreme in terms of fire risk.” 

April is typically one of Colorado’s wettest months, but much of western and southern Colorado experienced one of the driest Aprils on record. With little precipitation last month, and abnormally high temperatures statewide, Colorado’s snowpack is melting faster than usual. 

“So some of the state is still doing pretty well,” said Peter Bennett Goble, climatologist for the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. “But the farmer’s perspective is going to be key with this drought because one of the things that makes this one interesting is that, at least for northern Colorado, we had near normal snowpack.” 

Bennett Goble said that most of the winter and spring storms didn’t reach the plains, which has contributed to the extreme drought in southeast Colorado. Instead, these areas experienced a lot of windy, dry conditions. Summit County, which supplies most of the water for the metro Denver region, saw an average snowpack this year, he said.

Though every season is different, Bennett Goble is concerned that Colorado is experiencing a trend of increased temperatures without increases in precipitation. As temperatures rise, plants use up their stored water faster –– a process called evapotranspiration. Less precipitation coupled with plants using more water creates a challenging situation for farmers already pressured by Colorado’s arid climate.

“So we typically see soil moisture build up in the winter and spring months and then in the summer it goes down as the plants use that water, which is being occasionally replenished by thunderstorms,” Bennett Goble said. “But during warmer conditions, they use that moisture more quickly, meaning that they’re reliant on more precipitation to stay in balance.”

The higher temperatures have also caused Colorado’s snowpack, which acts as nature’s reservoir, to melt quicker. “We’re past 50% of the snow being melted off in the Southern Rockies and I believe not quite there in the Northern Rockies, but the melt is well underway,” Bennett Goble said.

MORE: As forests burn in Colorado and around the world, drinking water is at risk

Early snowmelt usually means drier conditions in the summer, which increases the risk for wildfire, he said. “And I would say that the next four to five or six weeks or so are critical because if we stay dry during that period it becomes really hard to undo the damage.”

“While water managers saw average snowpack and reservoir levels this winter, we continue to closely monitor notable drought conditions in southern counties and the windy Eastern Plains,” said Megan Holcomb, a climate specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The CWCB and Division of Water Resources meet monthly with climate and water experts to plan for extreme drought, mitigate water supply concerns, and monitor related hazards such as wildfire, Holcomb said.

The country’s second largest potato producing region, is also in its 17th year of drought. The San Luis Valley in Colorado is known for its agriculture yet only has 6-7 inches of rainfall per year, and climate change is just making that number smaller. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Some fire districts feel more prepared than others for the drought conditions.

“Fortunately for our fire district, we’re at a little lower elevation. And the majority of our fire protection district encompasses irrigated agricultural land and the city,” Montrose Fire Rescue Chief Tad Rowan said. “So we don’t have a whole lot of wildland-urban interface.”

Montrose County is currently experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions. Rowan’s department works closely with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to manage wildfires in surrounding areas. 

MORE: Climate change is transforming Western forests. And that could have big consequences far beyond wildfires.

He said the biggest challenge for this wildfire season will be navigating the coronavirus. Typically, firefighters gather in large groups in fire camps when working to manage a wildfire, which will increase the risk of exposure or spread of the coronavirus throughout the firefighting corps.

“So there’s a lot of planning and effort going into that, not only at the local level but at the state and federal level as well,” Rowan said.

That’s also a big concern for Lombardi. 

“We’re gonna always think it’s the worst and prepare for that. And now with COVID-19 happening, it’s changed things around for us dramatically, at least from a response perspective,” Lombardi said.

Lombardi said some of his staff have the coronavirus, and that the ones who don’t are coming in contact with individuals who have the virus on a daily basis because they are responding to calls. “So far, we’ve done really well with having not very many folks get COVID-19.”

But he said he’s worried about the increased risk for his first responders as the state opens up and Coloradans resume activities such as camping and hiking.

“They talk about the second wave in the fall and, well, I’m concerned that it may be sooner than that,” Lombardi said. “But again, I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m not a doctor. I’m just telling you what my gut tells me.” 

“We think our call volume is going to go up and in turn, that community risk or that community spread could be greater,” he said. “So I’m concerned that we won’t have enough healthy firefighters to be able to respond, and I think all the fellow fire chiefs that I talked to are in that same boat.”

Sterling Fire Department firefighter and paramedic Carson Bedford takes a seat at the front of a fire engine at the station in Sterling on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (Austin Humphreys, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In mid-April, fire chiefs across the state sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis asking him to issue a statewide fire ban to reduce the risk of wildfire and unnecessary coronavirus exposure for firefighters. Though he did not issue a statewide fire ban, the governor did give counties expanded authority to ban fires in their districts, regardless of wildfire risk.

“We recognize that if any of our first responders were to become sick, our efforts to respond to fires and other emergencies would be significantly hampered which is why we are in constant contact with emergency management professionals to determine whether additional action is necessary,” Polis’ spokesman Conor Cahill said in an email.

Lombardi said his firefighters often are deployed throughout the state to assist other districts with fires and emergencies. He said the coronavirus will make lending his staff out more challenging.

“I’m not saying that we won’t, but it’s going to be very difficult and it might not be the amount of people we might typically send and it might not be the timeliness that we’ve done before,” said Lombardi, whose team is made up of close to 400 firefighters. “I have to think twice about that, to make sure that I have enough folks here to respond to what happens here in my community.”

He said the general public needs to understand that it won’t be business as usual when the state fully opens up. And that the response from firefighters is not going to be as quick as usual if fires occur in multiple places because firefighters are also responding to coronavirus-related calls.

“It could be catastrophic, depending on how dry it gets and how hot it gets,” Lombardi said. “And people just have to know that our response is going to be impacted because of the COVID virus. We probably won’t be able to send as many people as we had before.”

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Sun writer. She left the publication in June 2020.
Email: Twitter: @moe_clark15