April 29, 2022 | NEWS | By Leigh Walden | Illustration by Iris Guo

As the weather warms, more Coloradans begin to step into the outdoors and enjoy the benefits of the upcoming summer season. With the turn of the weather, however, also comes the onset of Colorado’s wildfire season. With lower than normal anticipated precipitation, significant quantities of dry, beetle killed trees, and extreme winds, this season could be one of some seriously cataclysmic burns.

Making calculations and predictions about a wildfire season is not an exact science. Even meteorological reports on predicted rainfall and precipitation have become less reliable throughout the last decade as a result of climate change. However, there are a series of criteria that fire departments look out for when it comes to building resources before the wildfire season begins.

These criteria are the health of surrounding forests within a region, the wind patterns observed in the preceding six to eight months, snowpack within the mountains, and, though variable, the expected precipitation for the season. These measures are not telling a reassuring story this year.

To begin, copious amounts of forest has been damaged either through beetle kill from the Mountain Pine Beetle or through moth kill from the Douglas-Fir Tussock Moths. The latter had a peak season in 2016, killing many trees south of Colorado Springs. These dead trees act as extremely dry timber once a spark starts, and their height means they are more prone to “ember hopping,” where burning embers from one tree jump to another, spreading a fire quickly.

Wind this year is another concern. Colorado has seen more frequent instances of prolonged windstorms recently, some of which have already led to fires. The Marshall fire that burned on Dec. 30, 2021 in Boulder was difficult for fire crews to respond to due to above average winds. This fire ultimately consumed around 6,000 acres of land and destroyed approximately 1,000 homes. More recently, Colorado was put under high wind warnings the weekend of April 22-24 and observed a period of “extremely critical risk” of wildfire. This warning has only been issued one other time since 2010.

Snowpack this year may offer a different story. As of April 26, Colorado’s snowpack is reported to be within 83% of the median from 1991 to 2020. The southern peaks are showing less snowpack than average at about 50% of the median, but Colorado received a healthy amount of snow this winter overall.

Finally, the anticipated precipitation for this summer remains an issue. Though there is disagreement as to the extent to which Colorado will undergo a drought this summer, there does seem to be a general consensus among some meteorologists that this summer will have below average precipitation. These predictions vary from Colorado being in extreme drought to Colorado being in moderate drought this summer. Though if this spring is any prediction, this will be a drier summer for the state.

Charles Walden, Volunteer Fire Chief of 20 years for the Larkspur Fire District, which is south of Colorado Springs, said that the upcoming fire season is already keeping districts on their toes.

“I would say the likelihood of a large conflagration south of Denver would be in the 90th to 95th percentile,” Walden said. “We have a large swath of beetle killed trees, higher than normal winds and we’re expecting a drier than normal summer.”

Walden also mentioned that while there is a concern for the preservation of structures and human lives, fire departments are also compelled by a duty to protect the national forest.

“The national forest in Colorado is critical because it protects the watershed that feeds into several rivers. Without the forest, we see an increase of mudslides and floods and as a result, the water that enters into waterways becomes more polluted,” said Walden.

Additionally, Walden made note that even the trees that haven’t been damaged through beetle or moth kill still aren’t necessarily composing a healthy forest.

“In the Pike National Forest, you see trees touching tree limb to tree limb and there’s not as much species diversity as Mother Nature wanted there. The plants in the understory are starved for sunlight and that’s hurting the overall health,” said Walden. “Ultimately, we have loved the forest too much, some of them [the trees] need to die. Mother Nature needs to reclaim her forest.”

There are still a number of unknown variables that will contribute to a better or worse fire season, including temperature fluctuation and human activity. Regardless, Coloradans should be careful with their flames this summer and make adjustments for what could be a worsening fire future beyond this year.

Disclaimer: The writer in this piece and the interviewee are related.

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