Wildfire season is quickly approaching in Colorado, and it has the potential to be the worst we’ve had in the last five or six years. The warning came from Gov. John Hickenlooper and state fire officials, during a recent press conference in Centennial. Specifically, they cautioned that this summer might be as nasty as the historic fire seasons of 2012 and 2013.
You can blame our recent low snowfall winter. Statewide, Colorado received just 68 percent of its normal snowpack. Things were much worse on the far western side of the state, with the Animas, Dolores, San Juan, and San Miguel basins receiving just 36 percent of their normal historic averages.
And then, there is the drought. The U.S. Drought Monitor says that about 88 percent of the state is experiencing conditions that cover the spectrum from abnormal dryness to extreme drought. Southwestern and southern Colorado are getting the worst of it.
That adds up to a lot of wildfire potential. But, fire season prediction is an inexact science. We could dodge the bullet if we get a strong monsoon season with lots of rain, according to Chief Tad Rowan, of the Montrose Fire Protection District. “You bring up a good point. It’s going to be difficult to project what the fire season will look like.”
Also, Gov. Hickenlooper says the state is well-prepared, thanks to lessons learned from past disasters. The state beefed up funding and cooperation after the Black Forest Fire incinerated nearly 500 homes in El Paso County in 2013, the highest number in Colorado’s history. In the previous year, the Waldo Canyon Fire had also burned hundreds of houses. Consequently, in 2014 the legislature spent $20 million on fire-spotting planes, single-engine tankers, and contract helicopter services to try to find and extinguish wildfires in their earliest stages.
Now is the time to get ready for fire season if you own property in a wildland-urban interface area. “The wildland-urban interface, or WUI, is any area where man-made improvements are built close to, or within, natural terrain and flammable vegetation, and where high potential for wildland fire exists,” according to the Colorado State Forest Service.
“As far as what’s going on within our district, we’re very fortunate that we don’t have a lot of wildland/urban interface within the Montrose Fire Protection District,” Chief Rowan said.
Rowan has advice for people who do live in a WUI or other vulnerable areas. “The biggest thing is to mitigate the area around their property. They can get rid of trees, and other things that are obvious fire hazards that are close to structures.
“Also, we have a great resource in our community, with the West Region Wildfire Council (WRWC). They do have a website (http://www.cowildfire.org/), and if you go there you’ll find resources for mitigation. They got resources for grant funding help for those communities with properties that are in that wildland/urban interface. There’s grant funding available for some cost-share work on some mitigation projects. They also do wildfire assessments throughout the region, regarding high-risk areas. We assist the Council in doing that, but they are the experts when it comes to mitigation and defensible space. They are a tremendous resource.”
The WRWC serves Montrose, Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, San Miguel, and Ouray Counties.
You can get information about current wildfires, warnings, and weather at: Montrose Interagency Dispatch Center https://gacc.nifc.gov/rmcc/dispatch_centers/r2mtc/National Weather Service Forecast Office, Grand Junction, CO https://www.weather.gov/gjt/