Drought, fires: The new normal? | SummitDaily.com

Drought, fires: The new normal?

Steve Lipsher
Public Information Officer
Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue
AP file photoDrought has helped fuel wildfires around Colorado and the West this spring and summer.

A spate of big, destructive and early wildfires throughout Colorado and the West this year has climatologists, foresters and firefighters questioning whether the fire-prone conditions are the “new normal.”

Extended drought, beetle-killed pine trees, unnaturally dense forests and increased development along the forest boundaries all have contributed to the intensity, scale and destructiveness of modern-day wildfires.

“Large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons,” according to a 2006 study published in Science by Anthony Westerling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of California.

In Summit County, forest managers, government planners and firefighters all have redoubled efforts at coordination and communication to help mitigate some of the concerns. Swaths of dead and dying forests have been thinned around development to minimize the chances of fire encroaching communities. New building requirements have improved the “defensibility” of property. Public discussions have raised awareness of the hazards of living in a wildfire-prone environment and how best to mitigate them. And emergency plans have been designed to protect lives and property.

Reminiscent of 2002 – the year of the monstrous Hayman fire and when then-Gov. Bill Owens declared, “all of Colorado is burning” – this fire season in Colorado got off to an early start, with a record low snowpack that melted out quickly, unseasonably warm springs temperatures and virtually no precipitation during what traditionally are the wettest months. Vegetation dried out. Humidity dropped to Saharan lows. Even surface water supplies – potentially used by firefighters – have diminished.

Fortunately, firefighters in Summit County have identified dozens of “dip sites” that could be used by helicopters with buckets for fighting wildfires. These ponds generally withstand drought and are deep enough and big enough to provide a reliable supply of water – including, if necessary, Dillon Reservoir. In an emergency such as a wildfire, legal issues surrounding water rights are of lesser concern.

Of course, water is only one tool in fighting wildfires, and, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t even the most important one. It would be impossible to douse large-scale fires with water alone; instead, firefighters typically attempt to remove the fuel in front of a fire – either by cutting fire lines by hand or with bulldozers, or “back burning” to create an already burned area. Roads, rivers and other features similarly create barriers to the advancement of a fire.

The biggest issue at the intersection of water and wildfires actually is the aftermath, when silt and debris can get washed into waterways unfiltered by normal vegetation and ground cover, damming streams, clogging water intakes and filling reservoirs, increasing water treatment costs.

“When trees and underbrush burn, there is less organic material left to absorb moisture when it rains,” explains a recent article in National Geographic. “In addition, many plants release a waxy substance when they are incinerated, creating a water-repellent coating on burn areas that heightens the risk of flash floods and contributes to erosion. Storms flush silt and other debris from the fires into rivers, reservoirs, and ultimately into municipal water-treatment facilities, slowing the treatment process.”

With all of these factors at play – drought, forest conditions, water concerns, development – it’s easy to see that forest fires are growing in complexity and requiring greater attention and ever more resources to limit their destruction and repair the damages.

Look for this column every Monday throughout the summer. Articles will focus on drought, water conservation and the perspectives/realities of water management in Summit County.

Due to drought conditions in the Blue River watershed, water providers in Summit County are implementing increased levels of water conservation. Please go to your water provider’s website to see how these changes will affect you. For additional water conservation tips visit: http://www.blueriverwatershed.org.

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