Summit County wildfire outlook to hit a peak in June
Colorado public safety officials recently released its 2022 Wildfire Preparedness Plan, and, according to that plan, Summit County will reach “above-normal” levels for potential wildfires in June of this year.
In a press conference on Friday, April 22, Gov. Jared Polis said that in the past, Coloradans could expect a fire season to last during the warmer months of the year, but now, climate change has transformed those outlooks into wildfire years instead.
“Of course, wildland fire has always been always building part of Colorado’s natural ecosystem,” Polis said. “But there are several factors that are conspiring to substantially increase risk. One is the changing climate: drier, hotter weather throughout the year and less precipitation. Second is increased population of the state of Colorado — especially in the wildland-urban interface. Third is increased utilization in our public lands. Many of these fires, tragically, are caused by human behavior.”
These behaviors do not just include throwing a still-lit cigarette on the ground. They can also include a loose spark from a tire chain, lawn equipment or barbecues. This is why, Polis said, everyone in the state of Colorado has to be very aware of potentially dangerous activities.
“It really means being vigilant, not just when you’re camping in the backcountry, but in your neighborhood or in your open space near your home,” Polis said. “(The Marshall Fire) affected entire subdevelopments — residential subdevelopments — so be thoughtful about working with us on some development perimeter defense or home perimeter defense. If there’s fuel near your home, it’d be helpful to be able to reduce your risk by removing potential sources of danger to your home.”
Many of Summit County’s residents live near U.S. Forest Service land or other wildlands, making wildfire mitigation more urgent. Stan Hilkey, executive director of Colorado Department of Public Safety, said that in the past, large-scale fires would happen on public lands and not threaten local townships or residences.
“As you know, now, things are much different,” Hilkey said. “Half of our state lives in the wildland-urban interface, and that presents some serious challenges when you put together the issue of climate change, drought conditions and the like.”
According to the plan, low moisture paired with higher temperatures is not the only reason that the state’s risk is so high.
“In addition to weather and other environmental factors, overall forest health and fuels conditions remain a concern for fire impacts and risk in the higher elevations of Colorado, especially where there has been substantial beetle kill in the lodgepole pine stands and where heavy dead and down timber remains,” the preparedness plan reads.
This year, the state will pump $20 million of federal funding into work surrounding wildfires. Specifically, these funds will go toward boosting the number of firefighters and creating a statewide dispatch center. Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention, said that higher risks will begin the earliest for the eastern and southern parts of the state before moving toward the Western Slope in June. Monsoonal weather could bring relief to the western half of the state by the end of June, but the Front Range will be dealing with “extreme conditions” throughout the fire season. Friday marked one of the most dangerous days of fire conditions that Hilkey had seen in the last decade.
“I feel good about how prepared we are, but I know we’re going to have some tough days and bad days,” Morgan said about the state’s overall preparedness for large-scale fires this summer. “We want to prevent the fire first. And we’re going to do our damnedest to put it out as quickly as we can and reduce the threat to life and property. And we’re better prepared to do that.”
For this summer, the Dillon Ranger District has already compiled a list of projects to help reduce the risk of urban destruction from fires, including tree thinning, fuels reduction in neighborhoods and replanting in areas that have not naturally regenerated.
Overall precipitation in Summit County has remained lower than the 30-year median, meaning that this summer will likely also be considered under drought conditions like in recent years.
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