Summit County residents are accustomed to looking out their windows onto rocky peaks covered with lush vegetation in shades of green and brown.
In the case of a major wildfire, this vivid landscape could turn into a barren scene of charcoal-colored wood and scorched earth. Localized storms after wildfires can easily turn to floods that bring down debris, take out roads and damage waterways.
As hard as it is to imagine, this dismal picture could turn into a reality, said hydrologist and Forest Health Task Force member Brad Piehl at a community meeting titled “After the Fire” in Frisco on Wednesday.
“Looks can be deceptive,” said Forest Health Task Force member Howard Hallman. “When it appears the conditions are moist and cool and everything is growing, we begin to think everything is OK, but that can change quickly.”
Although Summit has fared better than other parts of Colorado in terms of wildfires in recent years, local fire-safety advocates said the worst could be yet to come.
“Our big fire window is late in the year after the growing season. When vegetation and undergrowth starts turning brown and drying out that fuel is ready to burn,” Piehl said. “Usually in Summit County that’s going to be in September.”
Increasing temperatures and the beetle epidemic’s damage to forests has changed fire behavior, the fire hydrologist said.
Large fires are becoming more common, and fire season in the West is about 65 days longer, he said.
Because of the fluctuating state of the forests, Piehl said research done 15 or 20 years ago may no longer hold true.
The Fern Lake fire outside of Estes Park that burned in the fall and winter of 2012, the Big Meadows fire above Grand Lake that burned in spring 2013 and the West Fork Complex fire still burning above Pagosa Springs occurred in high elevations and in conditions fire experts don’t consider normal, Piehl said.
“What we’ve seen is not what the research has told us, and not what we’ve expected.”
A big change like the mountain pine beetle epidemic could lead to a “new normal,” he said. But all is not lost.
“From our watershed work we can work to create more resilient forests — encouraging aspens and spruce fir to expand where lodgepole pine stands have been killed,” he said.
Homeowners can take precautions to protect their homes and property in the event of a wildfire. The Forest Health Task Force has been working with local fire officials to spread this message.
“We’ve been focusing on prevention, and there are various things you can do. But you shouldn’t think that fires can’t burn here,” Piehl said. “Fires have burned here, and I think we are more primed for a fire in the near future than we have been in a long time.”