Hot, dry conditions produce another active wildfire outlook for Colorado
State and local authorities already starting to prepare
Colorado homeowners who live where forests abut civilization — like most of the Roaring Fork Valley — are being urged by state and local public safety officials to buckle up for another potentially active fire season.
Warm temperatures, low humidity and high winds have already ramped up the fire danger.
“After last week, we’re in fire season now,” said Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson.
Aspen Fire Department already responded to a small wildland fire along McLain Flats Road when a bird hit a power line Wednesday. The fire was snuffed after it burned one-half acre.
Longer-term weather forecasts don’t give much hope for relief. Although rain and snow are in the Roaring Fork Valley’s forecast next week, the National Interagency Fire Center’s Predictive Services division foresees warmer and drier conditions than average for most of Colorado’s mountains through June.
“Everything is shaping up to be the same as last year, and that scares the hell out of me,” Thompson said.
Valerie MacDonald, director of Pitkin County Emergency Management, said the county was the only one in northwest Colorado that didn’t experience a significant wildfire last summer.
“There is no reason to believe our luck will continue to hold, and everyone needs to prepare for wildfire,” she said.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis held a news conference Thursday with top state public safety officials to discuss the fire outlook. It was a sobering message.
“Historically, wildfire seasons in Colorado were a four-month period of time,” said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “Since the 1970s, our fire seasons have expanded and they are more than 78 days longer. We’re having fire years not fire seasons anymore.”
Sustained drought and climate change are altering Colorado’s forests, scientists have said.
Four of the five largest fires in Colorado’s history have occurred in the past three years, Morgan said, and 15 of the state’s 20 largest fires have occurred since 2012.
Last year was the worst for wildfires in Colorado’s history, with about 600,000 acres burned. The Cameron Peak Fire destroyed or damaged 224 residences and set a record for acres burned at 298,913. The East Troublesome Fire covered 193,812 acres. They both burned in national forest in the central mountains. The Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction was temporarily the largest in the state’s history at 139,007 acres, mostly on Bureau of Land Management holdings.
Columns of smoke drifting up from the Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon in August rattled the nerves of Roaring Fork Valley residents. The Lake Christine Fire, which threatened Basalt, El Jebel and much of Missouri Heights in July 2018, is still fresh on many residents’ minds.
Eagle County officials say virtually all of the Roaring Fork portion of the county is located in the wildland-urban interface — the terrain susceptible to wildfires. Many of the homes in Pitkin County also are in that susceptible terrain.
State and local officials are taking additional steps to prepare for the 2021 wildfire season. Thompson said Roaring Fork Fire Rescue is getting its wildland firefighting equipment prepared earlier than usual and is already refreshing training for firefighters.
The Pitkin County Public Safety Council is focusing on evacuation plans for various scenarios, including situations where a wildfire forces Aspen residents to depart over Independence Pass.
The council met via teleconference with the sheriff of Grand County, which was in the thick of the East Troublesome Fire last year. The area faced many of the same challenges confronting the Roaring Fork Valley — how to get people to safety in a narrow valley with a limited number of roads.
On the state level, the Colorado Legislature has approved funding for contracts that extend the season for single-engine tankers and helicopters. Those resources are in addition to air support available to federal agencies. Morgan said having extra resources for longer periods would allow the state to stage aggressive initial attacks to knock down fires before they become destructive.
Last year there were roughly 5,300 wildland fires in Colorado, he said. The vast majority of them were small and knocked down quickly with local, state and federal crews working collaboratively.
Morgan and other state officials stressed at Thursday’s news conference that fire mitigation would be required to ease the threat of wildfires in Colorado over the years. That includes thinning trees through timber sales and mechanical treatments and, when conditions are favorable, using prescribed burns where firefighters purposely light fires to achieve beneficial results.
Individual homeowners also are being asked to help. MacDonald, the Pitkin County emergency manager, said, “everyone needs to do their part.” That includes creating defensible space around their homes, using fire resistant materials, signing up for emergency alerts and having an evacuation plan.
“We will continue to see wildfire, so we need to become fire adaptive, in other words, learn to live with wildfire,” MacDonald said.
Thompson said Roaring Fork Valley residents can call their fire department to arrange a free assessment of what they should do to make their properties less susceptible to wildfire and “harden” their homes against wildfire risk. The homeowners will be responsible for following up on the work.
Thompson said homeowner interest in the assessments and following through on the work is a mixed bag.
“We see upticks, then it slows down,” he said. “I wouldn’t say (the response) is overwhelming.”
Since now is open-burning season of ditches and dry grasses on agricultural lands, Thompson said property owners should go online at the fire department’s website to get a permit. They also should use precautions, like avoiding intentional burns during high winds.
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The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office is taking the lead in trying to close a gaping hole in the investigation of crimes in the upper Roaring Fork Valley by purchasing license plate-reading cameras likely to be used at the chokepoint entry and exits to Aspen.