Standing beside firefighting aircraft in a hangar in Englewood on Thursday, Colorado officials said they’re entering the 2021 wildfire season with more resources at their disposal than ever before. But they stressed that the best way to prevent a repeat of last year’s historic destruction is to stop fires from igniting in the first place.
“A seemingly minor act can cause great devastation in our state,” said Gov. Jared Polis, who noted that most wildfires are caused by human activity. “Be responsible. Be careful. Trailer chains, cigarettes and cigars, put out your campfires, fireworks — take every precaution necessary to avoid a tragic event.”
Polis and officials from emergency-response agencies across the state were briefed on Colorado’s 2021 wildfire outlook and preparedness plan at Centennial Airport on Thursday.
Early forecasts show that Colorado could be at risk of a repeat of its historic 2020 wildfire season, which resulted in at least two deaths, the destructions of hundreds of homes and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, firefighting expenses and other costs. The three largest wildfires in Colorado history occurred last year, and all 20 of the state’s largest fires on record have occurred since 2000 — driven, scientists say, by rising temperatures and drought caused by climate change.
“These trends, and the drought, are not anomalies,” Polis said. “They’re really a harbinger of the future, with climate change and significantly increased population, both overall … and in the wildland-urban interface, where more people live.”
Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said that forecasts for the upcoming months “are looking pretty rough,” with drought conditions somewhat lessened in the northeastern quarter of the state thanks to last month’s snowfall but severe risks persisting to the south and west.
“We’re looking very similar at this time of year (to what) we were last year,” Morgan said. “Other than that the Front Range is looking a little better than it did at that point in time.”
A long-range forecast published on April 1 by the National Interagency Fire Center projects above-normal “large fire potential” across large portions of southeast Colorado and the Western Slope between now and the end of July.
“Being an optimist, I’m hoping that our monsoons will come in April and May, and bring that forecast down,” he added.
The Polis administration worked with lawmakers in the General Assembly to significantly expand Colorado’s firefighting resources in the wake of 2020’s record-breaking fires. Senate Bills 21-54 and 21-113, signed into law by Polis last month, allocated an additional $54 million to the state’s wildfire response and prevention efforts, authorizing the purchase and leasing of new aircraft and boosting preparedness and risk-mitigation programs.
Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety and a longtime former Mesa County sheriff, said that Colorado’s “state of readiness” for the upcoming wildfire season is stronger than ever before.
“It has been remarkable to see the amount of effort and support that is coming towards the wildland fire problem in Colorado,” Hilkey said. “All of that is making a huge difference.”
Morgan said that thanks to the additional resources and lessons learned from firefighting efforts last year, state personnel are planning a new emphasis on “aggressive initial attack” aimed at preventing small fires from growing out of control.
The state’s early-detection efforts and its coordination with local sheriffs and fire departments are critical, Morgan said. He pointed to the state’s response last year to the Elephant Butte Fire near Evergreen, which was contained at about 50 acres, as an example of what the enhanced capacity could help his agency achieve more often.
“We want to find fires when they’re small,” Morgan said. “And we want to be aggressive with how we attack those to keep them small.”