Last year, Colorado saw its two largest wildfires in recorded history. They burned a combined 400,000 acres – more than 620 square miles of land. This year, it could be even worse. With drought intensifying across much of the western United States, many states are facing an unprecedented situation. As soil and vegetation are dry as a bone, there’s little moisture to prevent a blaze should something spark it – natural or human. Here’s what’s causing these record-breaking wildfires in Colorado, and a few ways you can help prevent wildfires this year while visiting and exploring the mountains.
Fires are Natural and Healthy… In Moderation
It is important to start by acknowledging that not all forest fires are bad. In fact, they play an important, natural role in rejuvenating wild areas and recycling nutrients. When a small fire burns, it turns grasses, shrubs, and small plants to ash, releasing their nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients for trees and new plants to use. Many trees evolve to withstand these small fires so they can take advantage of the fresh fertilizer they produce.
However, when wildfires in Colorado are completely suppressed, the amount of fuel that can burn begins to pile up, leading to catastrophic fires that burn all plant life, leading to flash floods that wash away much of the precious nutrient-rich ash and soil. This can leave an area scarred for decades before they recover.
2020 Was a Historic Year for Wildfires in Colorado
In July of 2020, the Pine Gulch fire broke out in western Colorado near Grand Junction. It was followed shortly after by the Cameron Peak fire, which burned just north of Rocky Mountain National Park in August. By September, a third fire joined them; The East Troublesome fire burned north of Middle Park, just west of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Over the next 4 months, these wildfires in Colorado grew to the state’s three largest fires in history. At times, there was concern the ET and CP fires would link up to become a massive firestorm – but firefighters managed to stop them just a few miles apart. More than 600,000 acres burned during the season, the most in the state’s history.
What was the cost of these conflagrations? The 3 wildfires in Colorado burned more than 1,000 structures, killed 2, and cost more than $260 million in fire suppression costs alone. The full impact is still being assessed – but past fires have been even costlier, occurring in the Front Range foothills close to major developments and suburbs. The potential for more costly and deadly fires is very real.
Wildfires in Colorado are Getting Bigger and More Frequent
The recent record-setting wildfires – two in one year – might make you wonder what’s going on. Are these just outliers, or is this becoming a pattern? When you consider the picture across the west it is clear that something is happening. Six of California’s seven largest wildfires occurred in 2020, after record-setting years in 2019 and 2018. In Colorado, three of the four largest forests also burned in 2020. The pace and scale of fires are increasing, and it shows no sign of stopping.
Many people focus on the role of previous fire suppression, as noted above. However, in many mountainous areas, this isn’t the culprit. A new study just found that higher, wetter areas in the mountains are burning with greater frequency than ever observed. These areas have had little human intervention over the past century, demonstrating that the cause is not forest management.
Natural Impacts: Drought and Beetles
The most immediate cause of these fires is the intense drought faced by much of the state. The entire western slope of Colorado faces exceptionally dry conditions, along with most of the remaining west. The region has been in a series of droughts for more than a decade, leaving the soils bone-dry. The result? What little rain that does fall is absorbed immediately by the ground, leaving nothing for plans and to recharge streams and rivers.
Many parts of Colorado have other dry fuel in the form of beetle kill; massive stands of dry, dead pine trees killed from pine beetle infestations. The west has seen an explosion in the number of beetles in various mountainous areas, often the result of cool winters that do not kill off the beetle larvae. There are few good solutions, given the millions of trees involved, spread throughout thousands of miles in the rugged backcountry. Scientists are working on ways to make the trees more resistant – but their work remains in the early stages.
Climate Change and Wildfires in Colorado
Most researchers agree that problems like drought, beetle infestations, and wildfires themselves, are all symptoms of a more nefarious core problem: climate change. A recent scientific study estimated that climate change has doubled the number of wildfires in Colorado and the rest of the nation over the past 35 years, by increasing the amount of dry fuel-ready to burn. The ongoing droughts are no accident – they are the result of a warming climate. Until we take action to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the risk of wildfires is likely to increase.
However, we can all still help reduce the number of wildfires as individuals.
Most wildfires in Colorado – 80% or more – start due to human activity. Campfires, fireworks, vehicles, firearms, and even smoking a cigarette can all accidentally, or intentionally, spark a forest fire. While climate change is increasing the risk of fires, it still usually takes a human to light the flame that grows out of control. This means that by preventing these accidental sparks, we could prevent up to 80% of all fires and the damage they cause.
How can You Help Prevent Wildfires in Colorado?
It’s not difficult to prevent wildfires. It just takes a bit of planning and knowledge. The key is to always consider the potential risk of actions that involve an open flame or combustion, and act to reduce it. Here are some specific tips from the US Forest Service for preventing wildfires in Colorado and elsewhere.
- Check weather and drought conditions.
- Build your campfire in an open location and far from flammables.
- Douse your campfire until it’s cold.
- Keep vehicles off dry grass.
- Regularly maintain your equipment and vehicle.
- Practice vehicle safety.
- Check your tires, bearings, and axles on your trailer.
- Keep sparks away from dry vegetation.
- Check conditions and regulations before you use fireworks or consider safe alternatives.
- Cautiously burn debris and never when it’s windy or restricted.
We all have a role to play in preventing wildfires in Colorado. While we can’t stop climate change as individuals, we can each prevent the spark that starts a wildfire. If you live in wildfire-prone areas, there’s more you can do too.
If You Live In Wildfire Country, Take Extra Precautions.
Do you live in the mountains? Things are going to get worse before they get better. Act now to ensure you have a plan should a wildfire ever break out near your home. A little action now could make all the difference if the worst occurs. These five steps are not an exhaustive list of preparations to make, but they are a good place to get started. Contact your local government for a more exhaustive list of what to do to be prepared.
- Create a firebreak around your home.
- Make an evacuation plan before a fire strikes, and have a Plan B.
- Keep a ‘Go Bag’ packed in case you need to leave quickly.
- Get wildfire insurance if possible.
- Retrofit your home with wildfire safety features.
Wildfires in Colorado Are Going to Get Worse Until Humanity Gets Better
The signs are not encouraging for this coming fire season. With moisture measurements hitting historic lows, and the Lake Mead reaching its lowest point since being built, it’s clear that fuel is ready to burn. Even as climate change increases the risk of wildfires in Colorado, most require a human spark or flame to ignite and grow.
We can all do our part to prevent wildfires in Colorado; Smokey the Bear was absolutely right. When in doubt, skip the campfire or fireworks, check your local fire conditions, and do what you can to help protect these mountains and public lands for future generations to come.