Witnessing a wildfire and experiencing the destruction firsthand is beyond difficult for those who call the area home. And more and more, it appears that year-round wildfires are the new normal and both residents and first responders must prepare and adjust.
"It’s essentially 365 days a year," said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University.
Recent rain doesn't offset the long-standing drought, she said. For example, the areas east of the Denver International Airport have become 37% drier in the past 20 years.
"We can expect this to be a continuing issue that we will be faced with," she added.
While some years won't be as bad as others, the challenging ones will be much worse than in the past, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado state climatologist and associate professor of atmospheric science at CSU. That applies to both the destructive fires themselves, but also the increased flood risks afterward because the burned soil cannot absorb precipitation.
Coloradans saw that happened with the Grizzly Peak Fire burn scar in Glenwood Canyon, when heavy rains caused debris flows that ended withI-70 shut down for several weeks.
Schumacher said the Marshall Fire is proof that wildfires are no longer mostly constrained to the mountains. The fire, which burned more than 1,000 homes in Boulder County on Dec. 30, 2021, showed that the number of people vulnerable to a fast-moving fire may be much higher than previously thought.
"This is something that we’re going to have to continue to be aware of, be prepared for," he said. "You don’t have to live in the timber up in Summit County to have bad things happen."
The people on the front lines, including firefighters, know this firsthand. Tyler Sugaski, captain at West Metro Fire station 9, explained that the Marshall Fire and 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs were both conflagrations — a term meaning “an extensive fire which destroys a great deal of land or property.”
"This is just part of living in an arid climate with large population growth," he said.
The Marshall Fire, he said, for example, had an almost unlimited potential for fire spread on the day it erupted.
"It really stopped being a wildfire and the fuel model itself was home to home and neighborhood to neighborhood," Sugaski said.
But with each catastrophe, emergency personnel learn how to better fight these fires.
"Looking for opportunities where there’s big fuel breaks or looking for areas where you can place equipment — it may seem like small drops in the bucket, but that does add up over time to say, 'OK, here’s where we are drawing the line,'" Sugaski said.
At the state level, experts have said that Colorado needs more firefighting equipment and more logging operations in the high country. The latter, experts say, includes thinning forests and ridding them of beetle kill timber. More controlled burns can also help.
Eric Hurst with South Metro Fire stressed the importance of having a plan in case your neighborhood is evacuated, especially since there is the potential of wildfires any month of the year in Colorado.
"In general, what we worry about with neighborhoods is what we call ember cast," Hurst said. "And that’s when you see lots of sparks just flying through the air, and they’re looking for a place to land.”
He recommends the following to protect your home:
- Swap out mulch for rocks, gravel or pavers five feet around your home
- Keep gutters clean
- Move patio furniture, firewood and playsets at least 6 to 10 feet away from the home
- Relocate trash cans and other combustibles
- Fortify your roof with noncombustible coverings
- Review your insurance policy
- Click here for more ideas from ReadyForFire.org and here for ideas from FEMA
"We don’t want people to be fearful of living here, we just have to know that we’re living with fire in our environment," Hurst said.
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