Colorado wildfires are year-round danger

Hotter, drier climate influences how and when fires ignite


State climate experts and local fire officials along the Front Range say wildfire season no longer has an end as heat, low moisture and other factors have created a year-round problem.

Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist, and director of the Colorado Climate Center, said 2020 was the worst year on record for wildfires, rewriting record books on what kind of fires can happen and when.

In the past, wildfire season was generally contained to the hottest part of summer in July and into August. Now, Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District Chief Daniel Hatlestad said, wildfires are a 12-month priority. The Inter-Canyon Fire District covers 52 square miles in Jefferson County.

“We are seeing these fires spread, and spread quickly every month of the year,” Hatlestad said. “The fuel load across the Front Range has created more intense, frequent and longer-burning fires. There is no longer a change of approach to prepare for wildfire season because there is no season.”

Schumacher said it is not just Colorado, Western states have had year-round fire problems since 2002 as average temperatures have crept up and annual precipitation levels have decreased.

Schumacher said the increased temperatures are here to stay and the impact on the atmosphere is real.

“In the mountains and western Colorado, the increasing temperatures puts more stress on vegetation and soil,” he said. “When the air is hotter, it is thirstier for water. The atmosphere then wants to pull the moisture out of the soils and crops. Even if you have a normal amount of precipitation, it does not go as far.”

Along the Front Range, Schumacher said, 2021 has been a good year for snowfall and precipitation, but the effects of 2020 carry over.

In years like 2020, Schumacher said, the exceedingly hot temperatures with a lower-than-average level of snow and rainfall become the perfect setting for wildfires.

In 2020, an estimated 700,000 acres burned in the state as the Cameron Peak Fire, East Troublesome Fire and the Pine Gulch Fire blazed through Colorado lands.

So far in 2021, the incident information system, InciWeb, estimates more than 25,000 acres have burned in seven different wildfires reported throughout the state.

Daniel Beveridge, a wildfire mitigation specialist for the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS), said climate change has created a new reality as officials manage state forest lands.

“With it being warmer and drier, it only intensifies fires, allowing them to burn faster,” he said. “The most important thing for people using public lands is to follow guidelines set by local jurisdictions. These warnings are not just created on a whim. They are not taken lightly, and they are important.”

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, about 90% of wildfires are human caused, with the other 10% coming from nature such as lightning strikes. It is important that people take responsibility and realize that an overheated car parked in dry weeds can spark a major fire, Beveridge said.

Evergreen Fire Rescue Chief Mike Weege said covering more than 120 square miles of land in parts of Jefferson, Park and Clear Creek counties presents a lot of challenges.

Besides climate issues, Weege said the current state of some of the state’s forest lands provides added fuel that allows a wildfire to get big fast. Dead, dry trees covering the forest floor have been a factor over the last few years, he said.

“We have continued to see this unhealthy overgrowth in forests,” he said. “Add that to the increased heat we are dealing with, and you have more fires.”

Last year, Weege said, fire crews fought the Elephant Butte Fire in the middle of a populated area. While the fire was contained after 54 acres, Weege said it could have been a lot worse.

Einar Jensen, South Metro Fire Rescue risk reduction specialist, said the “wildfire season” label is creating a false sense of security. South Metro Fire provides fire protection for 300 square miles in parts of Jefferson, Arapahoe and Douglas counties.

“It does not matter if it is in the hotter, drier part of the summer or in the winter, if the fuel for the fire is ready to go, it’s ready to go,” Jensen said.

In Castle Rock, Fire Chief Norris Croom said preparedness is not about time of year, but about being ready all the time. That includes coordinating with other fire departments to create a regional approach for the moment smoke is sighted.

In 2020, the Chatridge 2 Fire burned more than 460 acres near Highlands Ranch. Croom said if it were not for the coordinated effort between Castle Rock and South Metro Fire Rescue, more land and homes would have been destroyed.

In total, Castle Rock Fire and Rescue covers more than 66 square miles of land, including 34 square miles of the incorporated town, and 32 square miles of unincorporated land surrounding the town.

Hatlestad said when a report of smoke or fire sightings comes in, all departments along then entire Front Range are on edge.

“Fire sees no political boundaries,” he said. “A wildfire crosses town and county boundaries in minutes. All fires start small, but in today’s climate, they can become massive quickly.”

In 2020, the wind, heat and dry air created the perfect environment for the East Toublesome Fire to cover 100,000 acres in less than 24 hours, Hatlestad said.

Weege said Evergreen relies heavily on state assistance if a fire breaks out in the forest areas. Once a fire gets into the trees, Weege said it not only spreads quickly, but requires the state’s air assistance to fight it from above.

In the more suburban communities, Thornton Fire Lt. Perry Otero said the department does not have a lot of calls for wildfires, but they believe in a coordinated, cooperative approach for the good of the Front Range.

Otero said Thornton fire crews are trained to handle wildland fires and are able to send help to other counties and districts as needed.

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