Colorado wildfires: State braces for what’s next after last year’s explosive season

Federal forest firefighter Ben McLane got a visceral feel for the West’s intensifying wildfire predicament when his 20-man Hotshot crew rolled into Colorado last summer and faced the lightning-sparked Pine Gulch blaze — flames racing across bone-dry land and, each day, leaping beyond containment boundaries the firefighters hacked into soil.

“You’re not going to stop megafires,” McLane said this week as increasingly arid states braced for more battles. “They’re getting bigger, faster, putting us on our heels.”

Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, also got a fresh glimpse of the perils. It was Super Bowl Sunday — downtime, he thought — in the dead of this pandemic winter. Temperatures had dipped below freezing, snow on the way.

But two wildfires broke out inside metro Denver, forcing the evacuation of thousands of homes. Flames were devouring dry grass near a golf course normally buried under snow or at least matted so that fire couldn’t spread. And suddenly Morgan was scrambling, knowing air assets weren’t available, deploying a dozen wildland firefighters to aid urban crews.

One of those Feb. 7 fires burned 535 acres in Lakewood. The other burned 202 acres in Cherry Creek State Park. Flames flickered into the night, fizzling only after snow hit.

“It baffles your mind,” Morgan said. “It’s just not what you sense as being normal.”

Deepening uncertainty about what to expect as the climate warms, and doubts about firefighters’ ability to guarantee protection, pervade the early planning for wildfires this year. Colorado and federal officials are bracing after fires shattered records in 2020, burning 667,000 acres statewide. Three exploded rapidly and became the largest wildfires in the state’s recorded history.

While mudslides and erosion that chokes streams with sediment loom as consequences, state and federal officials are mobilizing to fight new wildfires.

Exceptional to extreme aridity across 57% to 90% of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and Arizona this month — markedly worse than in March 2020, according to U.S. Drought Monitor data — has primed forests for bigger burns. An ocean surface temperature pattern also is expected to favor hot, dry and windy conditions in much of Colorado.

The lagging mountain snowpack nearing the end of winter — statewide snowpack on Thursday measured 85% of the norm — combined with dry soil from years of increasing aridity has put Colorado and surrounding states in a deficit that even big storms, like this weekend’s late-winter blast, can only partially reduce.

The federal National Interagency Fire Center’s spring outlook assessment warns of “above normal” potential for large wildfires through May and says “above normal significant fire potential is predicted to continue, expanding in June across southern Colorado and into central portions of the state by the second half of the month.” Colorado traditionally, depending on summer rains, faces the most wildfires during driest times in August and September.

And prescribed fires that state fire prevention officials had scheduled during winter, to try to reduce overly dense trees and shrubs near communities, weren’t done.

Colorado leaders’ focus amid this uncertainty has been on ramping up capacities for quickly suppressing wildfires. They propose to deploy a $24 million Firehawk, a military helicopter converted into an unprecedented tool for squelching fires with maximum efficiency. It can swoop into burning forests, even at night using infrared scopes. It can carry 1,000 gallons of water in tanks, refilling them from ponds using a retractable snorkel. It can haul a dozen firefighters, drop them to the ground and hoist those in trouble to safety.

“We need to improve our rapid response,” Gov. Jared Polis said at a recent wildfire summit convened by U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, with Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenloooper participating, where Polis warned families face an “angel of destruction” when wildfires reach foothills homes.

Federal and state agencies also are working to increase forest health work — selective tree-thinning and logging — to reduce fuel for wildfires, restore ecological balance and boost resilience in Colorado’s ailing, insect-ravaged forests.

Jacqueline Buchanan, deputy regional director for the U.S. Forest Service, told The Denver Post the federal government can contribute more than $15 million in these efforts. A Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative targets forests near Durango, Salida and the South Platte River watershed southwest of Denver.

Consensus on climate warming’s impact

Yet many question whether increased firefighting and forest tree-thinning can keep pace with natural forces leading to larger and more frequent wildfires — a pattern intensifying since the 1.2 million-acre Yellowstone fires of 1988. Some officials advocate a fundamentally different approach, including limits on building in burn zones and radically expanded use of prescribed fires to restore forest balance.

There’s consensus now on the context. Few in state and federal agencies dispute that climate warming — caused by burning so much fossil fuel that heat-trapping air pollution has turned up the planet’s thermostat — has created conditions that favor worsening wildfires for decades. Temperatures in parts of western Colorado, federal records show, have risen at nearly twice the global average rate.

Few question that a century of suppressing wildfires to enable settlement has primed forests with dense fuel so that, when lightning or people ignite fires, big burns are practically inevitable. And few contest the ecological necessity of fire as a natural force in the West.

The complication is people. Colorado’s population growth and development boom are driving unprecedented construction in burn zones. Roughly 3 million of Colorado’s 5.9 million residents live on land where wildfire is as natural as ocean waves pounding a coast. This compels fire suppression that sets up bigger burns in the future.

“A lot of people say fire on the landscape is good. We completely agree with that,” Morgan said. “But when it is a landscape covered in subdivisions… and the intensity at which these fires burn…. and then you’ve got the mudslides that come afterwards…”

Last year, wildfires destroyed fewer than 1,000 homes and other buildings in Colorado, compared with 3,800 in Oregon and more than 14,000 in California. Since 2005, wildfires have destroyed 89,000 buildings around the West, according to a Headwaters Economics analysis.

At the recent wildfire summit, Polis, Bennet, Hickenlooper and Neguse listened to laments of residents forced to flee for their lives.

“What do you take? I grabbed family art off the wall, some photos for keepsakes,” said Courtney Walsh, recounting her escape as the 10,095-acre CalWood fire burned west of Boulder.

Sheriff deputies pulled up outside “and told us to evacuate immediately. The winds just started getting out of control and it grew and tore through our neighborhood. We knew, at that point, it was gone.”

State forester Mike Lester said Colorado in 2020 “dodged a bullet” as record-setting wildfires burned until Thanksgiving.  “We had fires rolling toward populated areas, much closer than I would like to see. We really need to pay attention to what’s going on here,” he said.

“We cannot protect everything,” Lester said. “More fires are going to burn, and our suppression needs to be really strong.”

However, “we’re never getting rid of fire, and what we really need to do is figure out how to live with fire. We are behind. We need to move on all fronts. And, if a forecast says it is going to be an all-right year, well, most of us have been around for a while. This is no time to rest.”

Rapid response remains the focus

Ramping up fire suppression reflects a traditional priority on snuffing flames before wildfires gain momentum. This requires interrupting nature’s processes.

It entails ever-more heavy public spending. Polis’s proposed budget seeks $78 million for wildfire-related spending, including $24 million for one Firehawk helicopter and $3.8 million for annual operating expenses.

But that Firehawk, assuming state lawmakers sign off on emerging wildfire management bills, cannot be deployed until October at the earliest, Morgan said.

It may be possible to rent a Firehawk for use during the summer at a cost of $3 million, he said.

California has deployed three Firehawks in the state’s expanding aerial firefighting arsenal and ordered another dozen.

Forest Service supervisors in Colorado last week said they are hiring firefighters as quickly as possible.

State and federal authorities also are lining up additional aerial assets to be positioned around western Colorado — six rapid-response helicopters and two fixed-wing planes used to fly over forests and spot fires — along with at least one exclusive-use air tanker that can carry 3,000 gallons of water or fire-retardant red slurry.

Forest resilience seen as long-term fix

The simultaneous scramble to step-up forestry work to restore health across Colorado’s 24 million acres of forests, where insects over the past 15 years ravaged roughly 5 million acres, is seen as equally essential. Wildfires burn more slowly and less intensely in patchy, multi-species forests. Firefighters can enter at less risk and try to contain wildfires.

Federal funds for increased wildfire “mitigation” are to be funneled through the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and spent on projects around the state that local government leaders have prioritized. Roughly 150,000 acres of forest have been targeted for treatment over the next five years as part of the $4 million Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative, starting around Durango in southwestern Colorado, Salida along the Arkansas River, and the upper South Platte River watershed between South Park and metro Denver, where Denver Water operates water supply storage reservoirs.

“If we can get the forests into a healthier condition and reduce the fuels to where they should be, then we are probably not going to have to suppress as many large wildfires,” Lester said, advocating selective tree-thinning and smart logging.

Forest Service officials planned to spend an additional $11.5 million over the next year on fuels reduction on more than 100,000 acres around the state.

In addition, Polis has called on owners of houses built in burn zones to engage, taking responsibility to clear “home perimeter” defensible space that could slow wildfires.

“It doesn’t guarantee they will be passed over by this angel of destruction,” he said, “but it increases the odds.”

Restoration costs for controlling erosion and infrastructure damage from 2020 wildfires, requiring groundwork with helicopter support to stabilize burned slopes, are estimated at more than $50 million.

Lawmakers said the scale of forestry work around the West must increase significantly.

“An incremental approach is not what we need. We need to transform the way we manage forests,” Bennet said at the summit. “The good news is that we can create millions of good-paying jobs in rural areas.”

Deepening uncertainty and loss of control

Worsening wildfires around the West as the climate warms likely will create havoc and compel catch-up work for more than a decade, according to state and federal land managers, who acknowledge a loss of control. Ecologists and fire analysts increasingly urge a broader and more aggressive approach.

State officials recently took the first steps, convened a meeting of county commissioners and municipal elected officials from around western Colorado, where they encouraged scrutiny of new construction in burn zones.

Colorado officials lack the power to control growth, a longstanding western aversion to imposing rules that restrict the use of private property. And state officials say that means local leaders must decide and assume the burdens of adjusting zoning and shifting more toward the use of less-flammable building materials to ensure safety.

In southwestern Colorado, residents are embracing self-protection, following Summit County tree-thinning near resorts that in recent years protected people from fires. Durango-area efforts aim for restorative forestry work treating 300,000 acres of public and private land across a 750,000-acre area, supported by the National Wild Turkey Federation and other advocates for preserving wildlife habitat.

State and federal agencies so far appear focused on a “knee-jerk” approach of suppressing more fires and trying to mitigate inevitable larger wildfires, said Jimbo Buickerood, lands and forest protection manager for the Durango-based San Juan Citizens Alliance.

“And unless you really start looking at building codes and, most important, zoning and other measures, and really look at how and where homes and infrastructure are built, then you really are not taking on the issue,” Buickerood said. State and federal agencies “are relying too much on tree-thinning, and not enough on the other things,” he said.

Fighting fire with fire

Prescribed fires deliberately set to replicate nature’s fire regimes, for example, can reduce fuel selectively and help restore forest balance at a cost of around $40 an acre, compared with $4,000 an acre for tree-thinning in the foothills west of Colorado’s Front Range cities.

But in Colorado, land managers target less than 40,000 acres a year for prescribed burns, which require favorable wind conditions to be done safely. The number of permits issued for prescribed burns in Colorado decreased to 122 in 2019 from 157 in 2009, according to Colorado Prescribed Fire Council records.

Last year, federal officials banned prescribed burns amid the havoc of the COVID-19 pandemic. When they lifted that ban in November, forest crews focused on burning piles of dead trees across 5,000 acres — but haven’t conducted wider “broadcast burns” designed to mimic a natural fire regime and build up forest soils. Government officials blamed dry conditions and wind on days when burns might have been done.

A 2012 prescribed fire near Conifer that blew out of control and killed two elderly residents and destroyed several structures left state leaders gun-shy and lawmakers eventually blocked the Colorado State Forest Service from conducting prescribed fires, though other state agencies still can.

Forest Service officials for years have said they want to let ecologically beneficial wildfires burn wherever possible and use prescribed fire when conditions are right.

“I am not gun-shy,” Buchanan said at Forest Service regional headquarters. “But we don’t want to lose that tool. You just don’t want to have a bad outcome.”

Firefighters carry burden of worsening fires

Meantime the burden of dealing with worsening wildfires falls disproportionately on frontlines firefighters.

Hotshot crews numbering about 113, only a handful more than two decades ago, find themselves increasingly hard-pressed, often driving for days to reach western wildfires. These are elite, highly-trained teams, similar to military special forces, able to operate with minimal support. Before crews roll up at wildfires, team leaders typically text back and forth between vehicles, assessing possible attack strategies and risks.

Containing the new megafires, such as Colorado’s 209,000-acre Cameron Peak fire that burned west of Fort Collins, often isn’t possible and firefighters describe a shift toward “wildfire triage” and prioritizing protection of high-value second homes.

Firefighter resignations are on the rise, due to fatigue after years of “chasing overtime” and accumulating stress, along with mental health problems, said Kelly Martin, president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, which advocates for better base pay and benefits.

A 35-year veteran fire behavior analyst for the Forest Service and the National Park Service, Martin has concluded that human efforts to combat climate warming are reaching a turning point. The best approach now, she said, would be to radically increase “aggressive use of prescribed fire,” deliberately bringing back fire across hundreds of thousands of acres of forests and steppe around the West.

“We’re going to continue to see large fires. So how can you fight fire with fire?” Martin said, adding that many federal and state officials embrace going big with prescribed fires but “are not there yet in our mindset.”

Fire suppression has morphed into a $3 billion industry, where firefighters receive a base pay of $13.45 an hour, which isn’t enough to retain them and expand those efforts, she said.

“We have to create a parallel industry for prescribed fire and forest fuels reduction,” Martin said. “The only really logical tool we can use now is prescribed fire. We’re looking for forest resiliency. Trying to suppress fire only begets more fire. We’re living on a planet where fire has been a natural element for millennia. We really have to embrace it.”

Source: Read Full Article