DENVER – Colorado should expect another year of intense wildfires in 2021 due to ongoing drought conditions that could worsen through the summer, according to the annual forecast released Thursday by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
And while the state is more prepared with resources from a host of wildfire-related bills signed by the governor and additional funding and knowledge gleaned from last year’s wildfires, the state’s top fire officials say that year-round fire seasons are now going to be considered the norm.
“Since the 1970s, our fire seasons have expanded. They’re over 78 days longer. We’re having fire years, not fire seasons anymore,” said Mike Morgan, the director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
In Thursday’s announcement and interviews over the past month, DFPC officials have pointed to climate change, forest management, increasing drought conditions and a growing population in Colorado as reasons they believe that years like 2020 could become more of the standard for fire behavior.
“The largest fire in Colorado’s history, that had been there for 18 years, is now sitting No. 4 on the list as a result of three different fires happening in one season. In addition to that, I think when you look at specifically the Cameron Peak Fire, where it took a 17-mile run overnight in October, and then shortly thereafter, the East Troublesome Fire, that took a run that was over 25 miles overnight — I would like to say they’re anomalies, but I’m not convinced that they really are,” Morgan said in a March interview.
The 2021 outlook released on Thursday calls for above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation into August, leading to worsening drought conditions and with the state already past its peak snowpack for the season as of Thursday.
The forecast says the earlier-than-average snowpack runoff is likely to lead to “above normal large fire potential expanding northward through the month of June and affecting the majority of the western slope by July.”
All 20 of the largest wildfires in state history have occurred since 2001, and nine of them have occurred over the past three years. And the number of fires and acreage burned has steadily increased since the 1960s, when Colorado averaged under 500 fires per year that burned about 8,000 acres annually. In 2020, there were more than 6,700 fires reported in Colorado that burned 744,120 acres.
“We were having fire growth, when it’s in the scale of tens of thousands of acres — what used to be some of our biggest fires in Colorado — and we were having that just occur as one day’s growth on an existing fire,” said DFPC Wildland Fire Management Section Chief Vaughn Jones in an interview last month.
The Cameron Peak Fire burned 208,913 acres from August into November, and the East Troublesome Fire burned 193,812 acres in October, torching about 1,000 structures between the two fires.
There were 16 state responsibility fires in 2020 that cost an estimated $38 million in state funds, $248 million in federal funds and an unknown amount of local funds. In all of the 1990s in Colorado, there were only 15 state responsibility fires.
The late-burning wildfires, combined with the effects of COVID-19 on fire crews across Colorado and the West, led to a juggling of resources late in the year as the fires continued to burn intensely.
The outlook released Thursday says officials expect to operate under plans involving COVID-19 being a persistent issue again this year.
“Existing plans and processes are in place and are being updated based on experiences from last year,” the report says. “Several lessons learned from last year forced change and new and more efficient ways of doing business, and several of these will be utilized as standard practices into the future.”
Should current long-term forecasts hold up, the DFPC says southeast Colorado is likely to see above-average fire potential into April, and the rest of southern Colorado could see “an earlier than normal start to the core fire season” in late May.
As the snowpack melts, there will be above-average large fire potential across southern Colorado that expands northward into June and to the majority of the Western Slope by July, according to the report. Combined with the drier conditions and concerns about forest health, fire risk is expected in even Colorado’s higher elevations.
The DFPC noted in Thursday’s report that the 2020 outlook issued last April was “very similar to this year’s current outlook” – with confidence in some of the early season forecasts and less confidence after July.
The officials said they should have a better grasp on how the season will shape up after seeing how much precipitation the state receives in April and May, and again during the monsoon season, which generally runs from mid-June into September.
Morgan and others said they felt prepared for the season after taking lessons from last year and after getting more financial and physical resources from newly passed bills and budgetary items, including a bolstered air fleet.
Contracts for Type 2 helicopters have been extended by 110 days, the DFPC will have a Type 1 helicopter contracted for a year as a newly budgeted Firehawk helicopter is readied for 2022, the state will operate two Multi-Mission Aircraft, at least two Single Engine Air Tankers and one Large Air Tanker.
The state is also implementing recommendations from the Colorado Fire Commission regarding mutual aid agreements and assistance programs.
But the officials said Thursday one of the main points of prevention will be Coloradans themselves and visitors to the state. About 87% of wildfires are caused by humans, and officials are predicting increased tourism in Colorado as the pandemic winds down, as well as continued population growth in the years to come.
Thursday’s forecast estimates Colorado’s population will grow from 5.5 million to 8.5 million people by 2050 and that the number of homes in the Wildland Urban Interface will more than double over the next decade to nearly three-quarters of a million.
Along with that growth, the report estimates Colorado could see five times the amount of acreage burned in wildfires by 2050.
Gov. Jared Polis asked people to take “every precaution necessary” to be responsible and cautious during the fire season, including being mindful of campfires and managing one’s property to mitigate fire potential.
“A seemingly minor act can cause great devastation in our state,” Polis said.
Denver7's Stephanie Butzer contributed to this report.