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Colorado Faces another Season of Drought and Wildfire in 2022

Updated June 15, 2022

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 98.9% of Colorado was categorized as “abnormally dry” at the onset of June, with 83.6% of the state falling under the classification of “moderate drought.” 13.3% of the state was listed as under “extreme drought.”

Extreme Drought conditions indicate worsening pasture conditions, the increasing chance of large fires developing, and the introduction of mandatory water restrictions.

For a current forecast, visit: drought.gov/states/colorado.

The seasonal forecast shows almost the entirety of the state having a 60-70% chance of having above normal temperatures. These conditions coincide with an above-normal fire potential for the majority of the state through September 2022.

The snowpack across the state remains lower than normal, with some basins only saved from bottoming out by a late May snowstorm. Other basins, particularly in Southern Colorado, did not receive any precipitation from the storm and remain far below their median snow water equivalent levels.

This is especially prevalent for the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, San Juan, and Upper Rio Grande basins located in the southern part of the state. These basins are currently measuring at less than 50% of normal capacity.

The higher predicted temperatures coupled with the sobering drought forecast in the upcoming months of 2022 has the potential to kindle the worst year in Colorado wildfire history.

All regions of the state, except for the northeast, are at high risk for wildfire in June. There is the potential for a southwest monsoon in July, due to the end of La Nina, which offers the possibility of the fire risk dropping from high to normal.

Colorado is expected to funnel an additional $20 million in federal funding into firefighting and prevention initiatives in 2022. This funding will be used to help the state expand the firefighting fleet in time for the wildfire season and also implement a statewide dispatch center to assist in delivering aerial aid. This fleet expansion will include adding a second large air tanker and two additional Type 1 helicopters.

The state is expected to experience a potential five-fold increase in acres burned by wildfires by 2050. Looking backwards historically, fire seasons are an average of about 78 days longer than they were in the 1970s.

2021 Wildfire Season

There were 1,017 fires in Colorado in 2021, burning a total of 48,195 acres, or 75 square miles.

The most infamous wildfire of 2021 came at the close of the year, a grim preview of fire seasons in 2022 and beyond. The Marshall Fire may not have been the largest fire of the year (surpassed by the Morgan Creek and Oil Springs fires), but in its first twelve hours it overtook the Black Forest Fire as being the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history. Over one thousand structures were lost, as well as two lives.

The Marshall Fire was borne from a converging number of factors that didn’t start on December 30th, but back from the rainy spring, growing the tall, lush grasses that shriveled to tinder in ongoing drought conditions. That brush stayed dry all through that fall, and became ripe for feeding hungry fires. But food alone doesn’t fuel fires – they need wind. Which they received in buckets from an extreme wind event that brought wind speeds to 115 mph in Boulder County.

None of these conditions are particularly unusual in Colorado. The geography of the state, the strong winds that come down the mountains, the wet spring, and the dry summers are all factors that produce the fires we are seeing now.

2020 Wildfire Season

The first year of the new decade was one plagued by broken records.

It was one of the worst wildfire seasons in recorded history. Hundreds of thousands of acres burned and numerous lives were affected. The fires left behind over 625,000 acres of burnt land and over $200 million in firefighting measures alone.

The largest of the Colorado wildfires in a wildfire season that stretched both long and late into the year were the East Troublesome, Pine Gulch, and Cameron Peak fires. These three fires were massive and historic, each breaking previous state records in size, one after the other.

Cameron Peak, in addition to becoming the largest wildfire in state history, also became the first blaze to top out at over 200,000 acres.

The swift-moving East Troublesome fire broke a rapid expansion record when the blaze covered over 120,000 acres in just one day.

Key factors of these three massive blazes are similar. Drought and strong winds seem to be prevailing factors in the growth of all of the fires, while the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak blazes both seemed to burn unusually late in the season.

Mitigating the Effects of Climate Change

According to climate scientist Philip Duffy, while we cannot reverse the damage done to our climate which is currently effecting wildfires, we can help by cutting back on the greenhouse gases we add to our atmosphere. And ironically, it may also be the case that we need more burns, rather than less, to control future wildfire events.

Prescribed burns would make it more difficult for wildfires to grow, by helping to get rid of the fuel currently abundant throughout the Colorado landscape. Research forester Mark Finney, of the U.S. Forest Service, says we should proactively address the potential of Colorado wildfires by organizing prescribed burning, which would serve to help prevent large uncontrolled wildfires.

But, perhaps most importantly, we can also be more careful in general, especially during fire season or when conditions are dry. Unfortunately, and in more than one way, humans seem to be the greatest contributing factor in the increasing severity of wildfires.

Indeed, the human factor led to over 80% of the western wildfires in 2020. Unwatched campfires, tossed cigarettes, debris burns, equipment issues, and unfortunately, arson, are all ways in which we may contribute to fire hazards. Taking simple precautions and following current fire restrictions in place can serve to go a long way to prevent future devastating wildfires.

And if we can avoid adding to potentially hazardous conditions by negligent activities or behavior, address fires proactively by prescribed burns and other measures, and work to increase climate change awareness, the changes which follow may help to positively affect the severity of our wildfires, in time.

Here are some additional potential considerations for Colorado Special Districts:

  • Review your last building appraisal for adequate Replacement Cost Valuation.
  • Review the limits on your coverage and consider if you have enough.
  • Check if all assets of the district are listed on the property schedule.
  • Consider emergency response networks like COWARN.
  • Consider the cost of maintaining employment of staff during potential reconstruction.
  • Schedule a tabletop exercises of your catastrophe plan.
  • Regularly maintain proper fire mitigation of debris around structures.
  • Make sure provisions for temporary power are set in place.
  • Ensure you have a disaster plan in place and readily available to employees.

Further resources, check out READYColorado for tips on preparing for and responding to a wildfire.

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