Ahead of a spring storm expected to dump several inches of moisture along the Front Range, the forecast for Colorado’s wildfire season appears “moderate,” though that could quickly change, officials warned Tuesday.
The above-average snowpack and spring moisture won’t erase the risk of wildfire come summer, officials said during a presentation Tuesday on this year’s wildfire outlook.
“Right now in this date and time, you’ll hear news reports about flooding and high levels of snowpack and that is what is causing this moderate prediction for wildland fire for our state right now but that is always subject to change,” Colorado Director of Public Safety Stan Hilkey said.
“We get high temperatures, low humidity, high winds and a lack of monsoonal moisture, that could turn into another situation where we are expecting more wildland fire. We want to make sure that we stay ready.”
The “moderate” wildfire outlook means that a normal fire potential is expected across the state May through July, Division of Fire Prevention and Control Director Mike Morgan said. Typically, there is elevated fire risk at lower elevations in the Front Range foothills, east of the foothills, in the San Luis Valley and the southeastern part of the state because of long-term, persistent drought and overgrown fuels, he said.
In an average year, Colorado will have 5,500 wildfires, burning 220,000 acres across the state, Morgan said. “Wildfires will still occur and large wildfires are still likely.”
Southeastern Colorado faces the highest wildfire risk this year, Morgan said.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the southeastern corner of the state still is in a state of exceptional drought, in which widespread loss of farmland and crops are expected, and water shortages in reservoirs and streams could create water emergencies.
Snowpack in the Arkansas River Basin remains at just 78% of average, while levels in the rest of the state are at or above average, according to the National Resources Conservation Service Snow Survey.
“We are seeing some conditions down in southeast Colorado right now that are compared to Dust Bowl-type of conditions,” Morgan said. “We’ve had several state-responsibility wildfires and we continue to see a lot of activity down there.”
The state expects a Firehawk helicopter, which can fly in up to 70 mph winds, to arrive by the end of next month and be ready to fight fires from above starting July 1, Morgan said. The Firehawk can fly anywhere in the state and arrive in about an hour.
To fill a critical need for firefighters across the state, legislators proposed a bill to make training for firefighters free at community colleges for the next two years, Gov. Jared Polis said.
Polis said he is also working on introducing more housing options, as firefighters often cannot afford to live in the communities they serve.
“Not only does it make recruiting and retention a lot harder, but it decreases readiness,” Polis said.
As more people move into communities on the edge of forestland, Coloradans must understand the risk and take part in mitigation efforts, which will give firefighters “a leg up” if a fire sparks, Colorado State Forest Service Director Matt McCombs said.
“When you live in Colorado, it has to be second nature,” McCombs said.