Colorado’s fire season is shaping up to be a “complete 180” from last year, experts say.
“Everything last year was pointing toward above average fire risk, and everything this year is pointing toward below average,” said Bureau of Land Management meteorologist Russell Mann, who compiled the Rocky Mountain Region’s Fire Potential Outlook released in April.
The state’s snowpack — a significant indicator of spring and summer wildfire risk — is tied for the second highest since 1992, sitting comfortably at 157 percent of its median. Last year’s snowpack was tied for the third lowest.
Precipitation was also plentiful in February and March — significantly more so in March, and almost entirely eliminated Colorado’s drought. By April 9, only 22 percent of the state was in some state of drought compared with nearly 88 percent this time last year.
Coloradans have the El Niño to thank in part for the promising outlook, and La Niña to blame for last year’s puny snowpack.
The climatic variations are opposites and correspond, respectively, with low and high fire danger in Colorado.
The differences in the years are visibly evident in the landscape. Fires already had burned through thousands of acres in March and April 2018, including the 42,795-acre 117 fire near Hanover and the Carson Midway fire just off Fort Carson in southern El Paso County.
El Paso County’s only conflagration so far burned a mere 2.8 acres off Colorado 115 near Cheyenne Mountain State Park.
“Last year, in the middle of March, we were already burning large fires,” said Ralph Bellah, fire spokesman for the Pike & San Isabel National Forest. “So far, we’ve had some fires, but they’re not burning nearly as aggressively.”
Bellah added that none have so far burned in his district.
The wet spring comes with a possible caveat to wildfire safety, though, said Jeremy Taylor, Colorado Springs Fire Department’s Wildfire Mitigation specialist. With plentiful moisture, the dormant grasses will grow lush and tall, only to inevitably die as the region dries out in the fall. On a warm, windy September or October day, a spark would have plentiful fuel to run across the grasslands.
“As we roll into this spring, people can become complacent. We have to avoid that,” he said, adding that even in the summer, the ebb and flow of fire danger is unpredictable.
This year’s winter weather also provided numerous windows for forest and fire agencies to perform prescribed burns and complete other mitigation work that requires snow on the ground.
The Forest Service was able to burn more than 20,000 slash piles in the Pike & San Isabel forests as well as 1,500 acres in the grasslands. If the weather allows for it, crews will do more this spring, Bellah said.
“We were definitely able to do more than last year because there was just no snow, or if we got any, it would melt right away,” he said. “Now, we had snow on the ground most of the winter and so were able to burn almost all winter.”
El Paso County’s wildland team was able to mitigate piles of wood roached during the Black Forest Fire and thin the understory in Fox Run Park.
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