Colorado will pour an additional $20 million in federal funding into firefighting and prevention initiatives ahead of what officials say could be the worst wildfire season in the state’s history.
Above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation are predicted across the state through June, thrusting many parts of Colorado into more severe drought conditions and placing more of the state at risk, officials said during a presentation Friday on this year’s wildfire outlook.
Monsoonal moisture could bring reprieve to the Western Slope in June, but current forecasts predict extreme drought conditions for the Front Range through July, Mike Morgan, director of Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control said.
Ahead of what could be a devastating wildfire season, Colorado’s strategy to fight fires involves early detection and aggressive initial attack, Morgan said.
The funding will help the state grow its firefighting fleet for the 2022 wildfire season and implement a statewide dispatch center.
“Get the support to the local firefighters on the ground to keep these fires from getting named and becoming multi-day or multi-month events. That is our strategy,” Morgan said.
Early detection of fires also remains a key part of the state’s strategy in fighting wildfires. The state will continue to use its multimission aircrafts that help detect fires and report the longitude and latitude to local agencies before it has time to significantly grow. Since 2015, it has detected more than 600 fires “that nobody knew about,” he said.
The Dec. 30 Marshall fire, which became the state’s most destructive and costliest wildfire, served as a reminder that wildfire has become a yearround issue for Coloradans, and a potential threat even to those living in suburban neighborhoods far from the mountains.
Last year, 6,679 reported fires burned a total of 56,056 acres — marking an uptick from the average 5,507 fires reported per year in Colorado, Morgan said.
The state is expected to experience up to a fivefold increase in acres burned by wildfires by 2050, according to the Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s 2022 Wildfire Preparedness Plan.
“Half of our state lives in the wildland urban interface and that presents some serious challenges when you put together the issue of climate change, drought conditions and the like,” Stan Hilkey, executive director of Colorado Department of Public Safety said.
“We work year-round to try to mitigate that. We used to have a fire season break. We could gather up and train and get ready for the next fire season. There isn’t a break anymore,” Hilkey said.
Core fire seasons are an average of about 78 days longer than they were in the 1970s, according to the DFPC’s plan.
Hilkey presented the state’s wildfire outlook alongside Gov. Jared Polis and Morgan, on what he said was “probably one of the worst fire dangers days … in a decade.”
More than 100 firefighters worked to contain a grassfire in northern Colorado Springs that forced a subdivision to leave their homes and seek safety. Strong winds across the Front Range and Eastern Plains fueled concerns that a single spark could spread quickly and become very challenging to control.
Additional funding would go toward adding at least seven fire investigators to the state’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control to support local fire departments to identify causes. The division currently only has one fire investigator and two dogs trained to detect accelerants, according to the 2022 plan.
Colorado lags behind other western states in identifying the origin and cause of wildfires.
Officials have also adopted a preparedness level system, rating fire danger from 1-5, that will help the state move resources through the state.
On Friday, amid critical fire danger, the state moved two strike teams from the Western Slope to northeast Colorado and southeast Colorado, to be ready to assist local jurisdictions if a wildfire ignited.
The state plans to grow its firefighting fleet for the 2022 wildfire season, adding a second large air tanker and two additional Type 1 helicopters, Morgan said, noting that Colorado is competing with other states to secure the contracts for the aircrafts.
That would bring the state’s total fleet to three Type 1 helicopters, two Type 2 helicopters, two large air tankers, two multimission aircrafts and two single engine air tankers, he said.
The creation of a statewide dispatch center will help dispatch aerial firefighting crews and mutual aid, Morgan said.
The wildfire forecast came a few hours after Polis and state lawmakers unveiled a package of bills and tens of millions of dollars spending aimed at preparing the state for the spring and summer.
“We may very well be heading into the worst fire season in our state’s history,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, speaking at a news conference at the Capitol. “Of course I hope I am terribly wrong about that, but we need to prepare for the worst-case scenario.”
The legislative efforts will allow the state to contract with additional aerial firefighting resources and to have year-round, dedicated wildfire emergency dispatching.
“This package means that Colorado will be heading into the summer months with the most aggressive, most-resourced fire response we have ever had by far,” Fenberg said. “We are doing everything we can to be ready for this upcoming season.”
But, still, Morgan, the head of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, warned that firefighters will still be busy — and likely outmatched.
“We won’t catch all of these fires,” Morgan said. “I wish I could tell you we could, but we won’t.”
Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 6:45 a.m. on Sunday, April 24, 2022, to correct a description of the Marshall fire. The fire was state’s most destructive and costliest.