Colorado braces for high-risk July 4th wildfire conditions

Climate change-driven hot, dry weather puts more than a third of the state in ‘extreme’ drought

By: - July 3, 2020 12:26 pm

The Brian Head Fire burned more than 71,000 acres in Utah in June 2017. (National Interagency Fire Center)

Millions of Americans across Colorado and the West are heading out to enjoy the Fourth of July holiday weekend — but federal officials and wildland firefighters will be hard at work, keeping a close eye on hot, dry conditions that forecasters say are ripe for dangerous wildfires.

“There’s a lot of people who have been cooped up since the end of February, and we want the public to get out, but they really need to be on guard this year,” said Larry Helmerick, fire information coordinator with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, an interagency wildfire-response group based in Lakewood. “We don’t want to be, but we’re anticipating a busier weekend.”

Colorado has already seen several major wildfires this summer, including the East Canyon Fire, which burned 2,900 acres west of Durango last month, as well as the 500-acre Chatridge 2 Fire just south of Denver, which caused mandatory evacuations in multiple subdivisions in Douglas County on June 29. But so far, Colorado firefighters mostly have been able to respond quickly and contain the fires, helping prevent the larger blazes that have burned recently in states like Arizona and California.

“We’ve been very fortunate to catch most of the fires at initial attack,” Helmerick said. “That’s our goal, to put out everything that comes up as fast as we can.”

[bctt tweet=”Roughly 85% of all U.S. wildfires are started by humans, according to estimates from the Department of the Interior” username=”@newslineCO”]Officials are hoping that the state’s streak of good luck continues as the holiday weekend approaches. Roughly 85% of all U.S. wildfires are started by humans, according to estimates from the Department of the Interior — and not only from obvious sources like fireworks (which are banned on all federal lands) and abandoned camp fires. Car exhaust systems can start fires if their catalytic converters are too hot and parked over dry grass. Loose chains from boat or camping trailers can shoot off sparks if they’re dragged along the road.

“Humans are always thinking of more ways of starting fires accidentally,” Helmerick said.

The RMACC’s most recent seasonal outlook, released July 1, forecasts an above-average “large fire potential” for much of western and southern Colorado throughout this month, a projection driven by “drier than average long range forecasts in conjunction with a continued intensification of drought.”

A short-term fire weather outlook released by the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center on July 2. (RMACC)

Nearly 85% of Colorado is currently under drought conditions, according to data released by the U.S. Drought Monitor on July 2, with “extreme” drought stretching across more than a third of the state, mostly in the south.

The unusually dry conditions are part of Colorado’s decades-long trend towards hotter, drier weather driven by climate change; average temperatures in many parts of the Western Slope, in particular, have risen by four degrees or more, outpacing the global average, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. Long-term drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have persisted since 2000, the longest period on record — a “hot drought” that scientists say has been driven in large part by warmer temperatures.

“The basin has become hotter, which modifies several facets of the hydrologic cycle that lie between precipitation and runoff, including evapotranspiration and sublimation rates, the timing of snowmelt, and soil moisture characteristics,” scientists with the Colorado River Research Group wrote in a 2018 paper.

Colorado and its neighboring states experienced a relatively mild 2019 wildfire season, and statewide snowpack levels were slightly above average in early 2020. But another wave of intense drought has swept over the state in the ensuing months, and volatile swings between dry and wet conditions can pose unique wildfire risks of their own. Wetter weather led to increased vegetation growth earlier this year, but as these “fine fuels” — like pine needles, twigs and grass — have dried out, they’ve elevated the potential for energetic, fast-spreading fires.

“This year, we had a lot of early moisture, and now those fine fuels are on the ground, they’re dry, they’re receptive to burn,” said Helmerick. “If we get a lightning strike or some kind of human ignition, that’s definitely going to give us problems.”

The RMACC’s fleet of fire-fighting aircraft currently includes six large air tankers, two of which were deployed to suppress the Chatridge 2 Fire this week, along with several dozen other smaller planes and helicopters. The group’s air resources, which come from multiple government agencies, are regularly shifted throughout the West as fire conditions evolve.

“We are well stocked,” Helmerick said. “But that sure can get real thin fast when you have multiple fires breaking out across multiple states. Right now we’re as ready as we can be, and we want the public to go out and have a good time, but be cognizant of the fire danger. Because it really never goes away in Colorado.”

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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.