Officials Brace For Difficult Fire Season As Summer Approaches

May 2, 2018

 

Conditions across southern Colorado are dry, and they’re expected to stay that way as we move into the summer months. That has officials preparing for what could be a difficult fire season.

The season is already off to an ominous start here in Southern Colorado. Grassland fires in El Paso County, Pueblo County and elsewhere have already forced evacuations and claimed homes. According to experts, there’s likely more to come.

"Current indications definitely tend to point towards and above normal fire season," says Scott Swendsen, with the Lakewood-based Rocky Mountain Area Interagency Coordination Center, which makes predictions about the coming fire season.

 

A graph of current snowpack levels in the Arkansas River Basin (dark blue line) compared to previous years.
Credit National Resource Conservation Service

"The snowpack has a high level of correlation to fire activity for acres burned. Right now we are seeing some of the lowest snowpack across especially southern Colorado in up to 30 or more years," he explains.

 

For perspective, current snowpack levels in the Arkansas River basin are similar to those in 2012 and 2002, the years of the Waldo Canyon Fire and the Hayman Fire, respectively. Those were two of the worst fires in recent state history, and that has people like Michelle Connelly nervous.

"The Hayman year was a very very unsettling year," she says, "because it was unbelievably warm very early in the year, and dry. And to have a year looking even more dire than that at the get go is pretty unsettling for us."

 

Connelly is senior staff forester and operations director at the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, or CUSP -- an environmental protection non-profit headquartered in Lake George, near where the Hayman fire started. This year’s conditions are scary, she says, but CUSP is focusing on helping people mitigate their properties before it’s too late.

 

In a wooded subdivision in Teller county, Connelly assesses a property for fire danger. Behind the house is a large stand of spruce and Douglas fir trees -- beautiful to look at, but problematic in the event of a wildfire.

 

"If we want the ideal here, I would probably take out a quarter to a third of them," she explains.

"Stay calm, have a plan in place, keep your important papers and medications close by in case you do need to evacuate at a moment's notice. Practice that from time to time."

Getting people to remove trees from their properties can be a tall order. But while it’s no guarantee, Connelly says even small mitigation measures can make a big difference when embers from a wildfire are flying through the air.

 

"Keep the gutters clean, sweep the pine needles off of your decks. When we have a red flag day, take your cushions in that are on your lawn furniture, put them inside."

 

Local government and state agencies say much the same thing. Many cities, including Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, offer free on-site consultation services for residents looking to take precautions on their properties.

 

A map showing the areas at elevated risk of wildland fire in June.
Credit National Interagency Fire Center

In addition, officials are urging people to make an evacuation plan. Reverend Dave Hunting is the spokesman for the Manitou Springs Fire Department, and was there when the city was evacuated during the Waldo Canyon Fire.

 

"It was kind of surreal seeing the entire town evacuate," he recalls, "with hundreds of cars streaming past the fire station here in the early morning hours."

 

He says the department was aided in 2012 because people were paying attention to news reports and were prepared when the reverse 911 call went out. Over the coming months, he emphasizes that folks should be ready again.

 

"Stay calm, have a plan in place, keep your important papers and medications close by in case you do need to evacuate at a moments notice. Practice that from time to time," he says.

 

Weather conditions could change, and Scott Swendsen is quick to point out that a bad fire season isn’t an inevitability.

 

"Whether or not that will actually occur is hard to say at this point, there’s still some opportunities for significant precipitation to occur," he explains.

 

Nevertheless, he says, some long term models are showing below average precipitation in the region as we enter the summer months.