Drought and wildfire made headlines in Summit County in 2018 during one of the hottest and driest years in memory | SummitDaily.com

Drought and wildfire made headlines in Summit County in 2018 during one of the hottest and driest years in memory

Lower than average water levels at Lake Dillon seen on July 6, near Frisco.
Hugh Carey / hcarey@summitdaily.com

In the High Country, nature is king. But in 2018, Summit County found a growing nemesis in nature’s wrath. Drought and wildfire dominated headlines for much of the year, as the effects of climate change came rapidly into focus for the thousands of Summit residents who live in the Wildland-Urban Interface.

The first signs of trouble for a vicious wildfire season came during the dead of the 2017-18 winter. The snow just did not come. At the end of March, we reported that Colorado had experienced its third driest winter on record.

Troy Wineland, water commissioner for the Blue River Basin, addressed the Summit County Wildfire Council made up of government officials, firefighters and forest rangers to help them forecast the wildfire season. Wineland’s assessment was grim, and the county’s wildfire defenses were readied accordingly.

A few weeks later on June 12, the warnings became a terrifying reality. Amid record-dry conditions, a wildfire exploded on Buffalo Mountain, and within minutes was barreling down the slope. The Summit Daily provided wall-to-wall coverage of the fire and the response from the moment the first smoke plume was spotted.

The Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighborhoods, with its hundreds of lives and billions in real estate, were squarely in the fire’s path. A rapid coordinated response was initiated by local, state and federal officials.

Summit Fire & EMS and the Red, White & Blue fire districts initiated the first line of response before reinforcements arrived in the form of a massive air attack ordered by Summit Fire Chief Jeff Berino.

Berino, with decades of firefighting experience, could tell that the only way to stop the Buffalo fire in time was to get every air asset available in the area to bombard the fire with fire retardant and water. The combined price tag for the air attack will probably cost about a million dollars when the bills start coming in. But it was worth every penny.

“Just look behind us,” Berino said while giving media a tour of the fire site on the second day, gesturing toward the unburned, untouched homes and condos worth billions littering the hillside. “All of that could have gone up in smoke.”

Aside from the rapid deployment, years of preparation also had a huge role to play in keeping the fire from becoming lethal. Five-hundred-foot-wide thinned and flattened areas at the edge of the forest around the neighborhoods, known as fuel breaks, gave firefighters ground to stand on while fighting the fire.

“Back in 2011 and 2012, the Forest Service spent a million dollars to treat 900 acres in this area alone,” said Dillon ranger Bill Jackson. “If that fire had managed to run down the back of the neighborhood, we would have had to back off because it would have been way too hot. But this buffer gave us room to work with, and helps moderate fire behavior quite a bit.”

Aside from the destruction wrought by fires themselves, Colorado’s unprecedented wildfire season also produced an unprecedented amount of toxic smoke. We reported on the grave health dangers posed by the smoke, and spoke to one of the state’s top pulmonologists, Dr. Carl White, who revealed the full extent of health dangers caused by wildfire smoke and how hard it was to avoid them.

“When you look at the recommendations to avoid the smoke, it’s basically just run and hide,” said Dr. White, pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver. “Other than that, you can take basic precautions like avoiding going outdoors, avoiding vigorous exercise, closing windows and avoiding outdoor activities.”

Aside from fire, drought also had serious impacts on wildlife. At the peak of summer heat and the mountain drought, we covered the alarming effects drought was having on trout. Low water levels and high temperatures were stressing trout to death. We provided information on how anglers could help by avoiding fishing in the afternoon, when the water was at its warmest.

“At one point it was like wading through bath water,” said Jack Bombardier, of Gypsum-based fishing outfitting company Confluence Casting, one of many local water-based recreation companies that struggled this summer amid poor water conditions.

Summit County now looks warily forward to the wildfire season in 2019. While this season’s snow is shaping up to be much better than last year’s, drought persists in Summit and across the West. The Summit Daily will continue its extensive coverage on environmental issues in Summit County in the new year, giving readers what they need to know about the trees, water and mountains around them.

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