Colorado Fire Season

The Future of Colorado’s Wildfire Season

Extreme drought and fires are making for an unpredictable 2021

In 2020, the state of Colorado endured one of the worst wildfire seasons in recorded history. Hundreds of thousands of acres burned and numerous lives were affected. The fires culminated in over 625,000 acres of burnt land and over $200 million in firefighting measures alone. The massive destruction wreaked by these fires and the devastation to the Colorado landscape is undeniably tragic, and it may take the ravaged landscape years if not decades to recover.

While the cumulative effect of these devastating fires is still registering, significant questions come to mind. Will it happen again? Are the fires of 2020 a predictor of increasingly worse fire seasons yet to come? In order to fully consider these questions, we would need to understand more about how these fires occurred and what can be done going forward.

2020 Wildfire Season

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. In addition to becoming the largest wildfire in state history, Cameron Peak also became the first blaze to top out at over 200,000 acres. On top of that, the swift-moving East Troublesome fire broke an additional rapid expansion record when the blaze covered over 120,000 acres in just one day.

While it is initially difficult to come to terms with the massive destruction left behind by fires of this size, it is increasingly unsettling when you realize that not one, but three fires broke state records in size in just one year, making 2020 a year of horrible firsts for Colorado.

Pine Gulch began in the late summer and raged from around July 31 to September 23, covering a total of 139,007 acres. Prior to the Pine Gulch fire, the Hayman Fire of 2002 was Colorado’s largest blaze, but after a lightning strike initiated the Pine Gulch fire, the inferno grew to be the largest Colorado had seen, exceeding the Hayman Fire on August 27, 2020. Factors which aided the spread of the Pine Gulch blaze included the steep terrain and the drought Colorado had been facing as well as higher than usual temperatures, and fast winds. But the Pine Gulch fire, as massive as it was, was soon eclipsed by the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires.

The phenomenally fast-moving East Troublesome fire was detected on October 14 and contained on November 30, but in the meantime had blazed through 193,812 acres. Factors which fed the growth of the East Troublesome fire included pine beetle damaged trees, drought and high winds. Although the cause of the East Troublesome fire has yet to be determined, the source of this devastating event was likely human in origin.

The worst of these blazes, Cameron Peak, began around August 13 and was contained on December 2. Cameron Peak fire raged over 208,913 Acres and the extreme size of the blaze was fueled by a number of elements, including drought, rough terrain, strong winds, extreme temperatures, and pine beetle damaged trees. The cause of the Cameron Peak fire is as yet, unknown, but it was also potentially human in origin.

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. The very size of the blazes all occurring in the same year would either suggest an unusually hot and dry climate in Colorado. But is the extreme weather Colorado experienced in 2020 an isolated event, or an indication of worse fire seasons to come?

The Future of Wildfire Season

According to an article on cnbc.com, Colorado’s intense and extended fire season is not the only indicator of the changing times, but forms a part of the pattern of increasing fire issues in the Western USA. This article cites a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stating that wildfire season in the western states has lengthened since the 1970s, and is currently 78 days longer.

Furthermore, Jennifer Balch, director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, is quoted saying that in the month of October alone, large Colorado fires have covered three times more ground within the last 10 years than was previously the case in the 30 years preceding. While the snowpack shrinks, droughts are more common, and in 2020, the entire state of Colorado was deemed either abnormally dry or in drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Balch further notes that the climate change currently apparent in Colorado has led to warmer weather and lengthened the fire season. And it’s not just Colorado; the article further states that the Copernicus Climate Change Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration placed 2020 among the five warmest years on record. Colorado’s unfortunate and terrible 2020 fire season should therefore come as no surprise, since we have all been warned more than once by scientists that these worsening wildfires are just one of the symptoms of global climate change.

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.

According to research forester Mark Finney of the U.S. Forest Service, we should proactively address the potential of Colorado wildfires by organizing prescribed burning, which would serve to help prevent large uncontrolled wildfires. 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.

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.