Did you notice Mother Nature has been stingy in the Pikes Peak region when it comes to rain? In fact, U.S. Drought Monitor data reveal that El Paso County and Teller County are in moderate drought while Pueblo County is in severe drought. These worrisome drought conditions bring increased wildfire risk.
Part of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District’s mission to provide a safe and environmentally functional waterway is to provide information on drought to keep our community informed of fire risk.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the wildfire outlook has worsened in recent decades. The wildfire season lasts longer, fires tend to be larger and fire behavior is more extreme.
One explanation is the concept of naturally occurring wet and dry cycles. Unfortunately, we are in an extended DRY cycle. In the book “New Mexico 2050,” ecologist Craig D. Allen, PhD explains that the Southwest was relatively wet between the 1970s and 1990s and that the current dry spell began in the late 1990s. These phases are driven by heat patterns in the Pacific Ocean and are visible in the tree-ring record going back for centuries.
How is our watershed impacted by wildfires?
Knowing that we’re in an extended dry cycle is especially alarming, considering how severely wildfires can impact our watershed:
• Less vegetation in a burn area can reduce snowpack conditions, resulting in faster and earlier runoff.
• The soil in a burn area can become hydrophobic — it actually repels water!
• These conditions increase surface runoff and erosion, and this can lead to mudslides, flash floods, and debris flows that dump soil, rocks, and trees into our streams and reservoirs and endanger our citizens.
• Increased carbon, manganese, and fire retardant enter our streams, which decreases water quality.
Our watershed has been impacted by the two most destructive fires in Colorado.
Wikipedia presents a “List of Colorado Wildfires,” detailing the largest and most destructive wildfires in Colorado since 1924. In the last decade, our region earned the unfortunate distinction of experiencing the two most destructive fires on record in Colorado.
The 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire scorched more than 18,000 acres, resulting in two fatalities, and the loss of 346 structures and was, up to that point, the most destructive fire in Colorado since 1924. Also, within days of fire containment, heavy rains coupled with unstable soil conditions resulted in devastating flash floods, with additional property losses and one fatality.
Just one year later, in 2013, the Black Forest Fire burned more than 14,000 acres. This tragic wildfire claimed the lives of two people and destroyed 511 structures, and it now ranks as Colorado’s most destructive fire since 1924.
Your wildfire mitigation efforts can help our watershed.
Improving the health of our waterways benefits us all by ensuring a high standard of water quality and excellent stormwater management. Simultaneously, this creates recreational opportunities and improves natural habit for wildlife. Each of us can reduce the danger of fire – and its impact on our watershed – by taking these wildfire risk reduction steps, presented by Firewise USA:
1. Home ignition zone Learn how to protect your home in the three ignition zones (immediate, intermediate, and extended).
2. Landscaping and maintenance
Prune tree branches six feet up the tree and around your home and remove bushes containing resins, oils, and waxes.
3. Roofing and vents To prevent ember entry, repair loose or missing shingles and put recommended screens on roof and attic vents. Consider replacing roofs with Class A fire rated shingles.
4. Decks and porches Remove vegetation and debris. Never store flammable materials such as propane tanks and firewood under decks or near your house.
5. Siding and windows Ideally, your home is constructed of fire-resistant siding such as brick, fiber-cement, plaster, or stucco. When it’s time to replace windows, choose dual-pane tempered glass.
6. Emergency responder access Is your house number clear and easy to read, even in the dark? If not, spending a few minutes on this easy task can save lives and property.
7. Ready, set and go Pay attention to fire conditions and have an evacuation plan.
Bill Banks is the executive director of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District. The District was established in 2009, to manage, administer and fund capital improvements necessary to maintain critical infrastructure and improve the watershed for the benefit of everyone in the Fountain Creek watershed.