Colorado and Summit officials plan for wildfire season
Local, state and federal officials are preparing for what could be another troubling wildfire season in Colorado.
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control released the state’s 2021 Wildfire Preparedness Plan earlier this month, a document that outlines the state’s wildfire outlook, firefighting resources and recommendations for improving operations in the future, among other points.
The plan begins by reflecting on the 2020 wildfire season and trying to contextualize the growing dangers of wildfires in Colorado at large. Members of the public are well aware by now that the three largest wildfires in the state’s history all unfolded last year: the 208,913-acre Cameron Peak Fire, the 193,812-acre East Troublesome Fire and the 139,007-acre Pine Gulch Fire.
Though the report highlights the fact that fire conditions have been steadily worsening in Colorado and around the country for decades. The core fire season in the United States is an average of 78 days longer today than it was in the 1970s, and the number and severity of fires continue to trend in the wrong direction. In the 1960s, there was an average of 457 wildfires that burned 8,170 acres annually in Colorado, according to the report. Between 2011 and 2020, the average number of fires grew to 5,359, and the average acres burned grew to 233,728. All 20 of the state’s biggest recorded wildfires in history have occurred within the past 20 years.
Locally, officials have recognized similar patterns.
“Former Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino used to say that we weren’t out of fire season until there was a foot of snow on the ground,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “I would tell you that’s still a pretty good gauge, but that foot of snow, where it used to be in September or October, is now coming in December or January. And that foot of snow on the ground that used to last into June lasts to March now. … So when we used to be able to breathe — we literally would be able to pause — now with our weather cycles and climate change, we talk about it year-round.”
The state’s plan also presents a bleak picture of how the trend will unfold in the coming decades, suggesting that by 2050 the burn area around the nation could double, increasing as much as five-fold in Colorado. The report also anticipates the number of homes in Colorado’s wildland-urban interface to more than double over the next 10 years.
The plan also characterizes the immense costs of battling wildfires. According to the report, there were 16 state-responsibility fires last year, with an estimated suppression cost of $38 million in state funds and another $248 million in federal funds. The state takes responsibility for fires that have exceeded the capabilities of individual fire districts and counties to handle alone, which means the already considerable price tag doesn’t include suppression costs for local agencies nor does it include additional expenses caused by property loss, watershed impacts and economic losses as a result of fires. The numbers also don’t take into account all of the local, county and federal expenses on wildfires that were not the responsibility of the state.
Having provided an overview of the growing costs and stakes of fire suppression in Colorado, the report dives into the wildfire outlook for this year. The plan notes that it’s too early to forecast with much accuracy what the season will bring but that Rocky Mountain Area Predictive Services models predict an above average potential for large fires based on temperature and precipitation outlooks. The plan also suggests an “earlier than normal start to the core fire season,” which Summit County has already experienced with a pair of minor ignitions already this year.
Local officials said they don’t like to plan ahead based on forecasts, as conditions can change rapidly. Though, they’re bracing for a potentially long season.
“We don’t have the crystal ball, so we don’t know what the summer weather will bring,” Summit Fire spokesperson Steve Lipsher said. “But we’re in the business of preparing for the worst and hoping that we never realize it. So to that end, all of our line firefighters and medics are refreshing their certifications, taking their continuing education efforts, making sure all of their equipment is ready and sharpening their skills — even now as we’re still getting regular snowfall.”
The state’s plan and local fire managers emphasized that early detection and strong initial attacks would be key factors in reducing risks to firefighters and the public as well as minimizing a fire’s size, duration, costs and overall impact.
The initial attack on a wildfire generally falls under the jurisdiction of local fire protection districts. If the fire exceeds the capability of the districts to manage it — which usually includes mutual-aid assistance from neighboring counties and federal land agencies — responsibility is delegated to the local sheriff, who requests additional assistance from state and federal partners.
Once a fire is delegated to the state, Colorado funds are opened up to help pay for suppression efforts through the Emergency Fire Fund, which agencies and governments around the state pay into annually — about $30,000 a year from Summit County alone.
But this year the state has taken steps to expand the help it can provide to local fire jurisdictions during the initial attack phase of a fire, which in turn could help reduce the number of state-responsibility fires. The concept is called Enhanced State Assistance and this year will allow for any state resources to be used during the initial attack, including air support. The change is meant to provide fire managers with more flexibility to use the appropriate resources during initial attack and reduce financial barriers for rapid action.
Though, Summit County officials haven’t traditionally been shy about calling in bigger and better resources to help.
“The overwhelming mindset here is that all of those incident commanders and chiefs have the support and authority to order the resources they need immediately,” Emergency Management Director Brian Bovaird said. “In the past, we have developed a culture that’s basically, ’forget about the money.’ Those first few hours, if we can catch it and get some resources, the cost saving is monumental.”
But it doesn’t necessarily mean any jurisdiction can get the resources they request immediately. Lipsher said fire districts are often competing for resources at a state and regional level, meaning some agencies — based on prioritization — might be left to their own mutual-aid agreements and engines until extra help is freed up.
Though, the resources the state will offer in 2021 are considerable. The state will strategically place resources around Colorado — interspersed with federal resources to provide the quickest response — based on variables like fire occurrence, weather, the location of other resources and the National Fire Danger Rating System indices.
Available resources include staffed fire engines and firefighter modules located throughout the state. Colorado also operates a State Wildland Inmate Fire Team through the Colorado Department of Corrections and a heavy equipment program with the Colorado Department of Transportation to supply bulldozers, road graders and other equipment for fire suppression.
In terms of aviation resources, the state will offer at least two multimission aircraft, two single-engine air tankers, a large air tanker and two helicopters to provide reconnaissance, transportation of personnel and supplies, water delivery and more. One helicopter is equipped with night operation capabilities, making Colorado the only state in the country able to perform night operations in the air, according to the plan. The state is also developing a new Firehawk helicopter for use in the future, and the Colorado Army National Guard can provide up to six Black Hawk and two Chinook helicopters for wildfire response.
As state agencies prepare for wildfire season, local officials have been gearing up, as well. In addition to long-term mitigation efforts like the county’s chipping and fuels reduction programs, officials are also in the process of untangling the county’s fire restrictions. Currently, Summit County operates under year-round restrictions but is considering returning to a traditional model wherein the Summit Board of County Commissioners would enact Stage 1 and 2 restrictions based on need.
FitzSimons said the change at the county level could happen as soon as next week, followed by efforts to adjust current intergovernmental agreements with the county’s towns. The hope is that restrictions will better align with other agencies and government entities on the Western Slope and be easier to understand and follow for community members. The ultimate goal is a reduction in human-caused fires.
Officials also urged community members to be prepared with an emergency kit in their cars in case of a sudden evacuation, complete with extra clothes, money, toiletries, medications, important documents and everything else that could be needed.
“For those of us who live in wildfire country, the responsibility is not just with the first responders, the firefighters or the federal government to come and put out the massive fires burning throughout our public lands,” Lipsher said. “It’s incumbent on all of us, down to the community level, the neighborhood level and ultimately to the individual level. … We’ve gone a long way toward educating our residents and business owners about the importance of being prepared for a wildfire all summer long, and we’ve seen great strides.”
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