As Colorado moves into its usual snowiest month, low snowpack and high fuel build-up could portend a bad fire season, say fire and land managers.
Dry, warm weather could last through May, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management warned in its Feb. 21 Fire Potential Outlook.
The BLM expects above-average potential for large fires in Colorado - especially southern Colorado.
"Going into March, if we don't get wet, heavy snows, then we might be setting ourselves up for another 2012 fire season," which fueled the Waldo Canyon fire that June, said Tony Cheng, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University.
"If we start to see snowmelt and drying of flammable fuels in March or April, for example, chances for fires earlier in the season go up. Those conditions increase the chance that any fire will pick up, spread and outpace how fast firefighters can control it," Cheng said.
Statewide, snowpack sits at 70 percent of average. Consistent snow in the mountains and occasional storms along the Front Range have helped, but not enough to quell fire managers' worries.
In southern Colorado, as of Monday, snowpack was at 53 percent of average in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River Basin. That's up from 22 percent in early February but still signals potential problems.
By May, if enough snowmelt spurs a "green up" of vegetation, the fire season could be relatively mild, said BLM meteorologist Russell Mann. If foliage stays brown, though, fire risk will be above average.
La Niña has brought a milder winter to Colorado, as it did for the summer of 2012, Mann said.
And climate change isn't helping, researchers say.
As climate change pushes up temperatures in the southern Rocky Mountains, more precipitation will be rain instead of snow, resulting in a lower snowpack, a U.S. Forest Service study reported in January.
Fire seasons would get longer, and fire frequency and severity could intensify, the study warned.
"The first thing to understand is that in Colorado, we never let our guard down," said David Condit, deputy supervisor for the Pike and San Isabel national forests and the Cimarron and Comanche national grasslands.
"Whether we have a really wet winter or a really dry winter, we never know what summer will bring, so we never sit back and say it'll be a slow fire season. We always lean forward," Condit said.
After last week's snowstorm, he dispatched crews to burn slash piles.
"We love when we get a blast of snow, then some clear, calm weather because we can really get busy in the forest and do some strong mitigation work," Condit said.
Mitigation work saves millions of dollars by preventing losses, says a report by the University of Colorado at Boulder. Nationally, fire mitigation funded by federal grants saves $3 per $1 spent.
In Colorado, mitigation grants for fire, flood and wind saved the state from $1 billion to $10 billion between 1993 and 2016.
"On public lands, there has been a lot of mitigation completed, but not nearly enough," said Jennifer Peterson, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute. "I'm hoping this will ramp up in the very near future."
But mitigation can't compensate for human error or irresponsible actions, Peterson said.
"The truth is, we can do as much as we can to prepare, but it still may not be enough if someone isn't wise in their decision-making," she said.
A smoldering cigarette butt or campfire, for example, easily can spark a major wildfire.
Indeed, people caused 84 percent of all wildfires recorded by the U.S. Forest Service between 1992 and 2012. Those blazes burned nearly half of all acreage hit by fire and tripled the length of the average fire season, says a new study co-led by CU Boulder researchers.
In Colorado, people caused only about 30 percent of wildfires because lightning sparks so many infernos in the state.
But a human-triggered fire season lasts 50 days longer, on average, than a season of fires started by lightning, the study showed.
"We saw significant increases in the numbers of large, human-started fires over time, especially in the spring," said Bethany Bradley, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-lead author of the research.
"I think that's interesting and scary, because it suggests that as spring seasons get warmer and earlier due to climate change, human ignitions are putting us at increasing risk of some of the largest, most damaging wildfires."