Colorado drought and fire danger awareness

Mountain Living

By Irene Shonle

I’ll start with the good news: the 2012 aerial survey shows that the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic has essentially petered out. This is definitely cause for celebration, but it doesn’t necessarily change the picture on the potential for fires. While many people believe that beetle-killed forests are at an increased risk for wildfires, recent research by climatologists, biologists, geographers, and fire ecologists has revealed that fires in western forests are more strongly linked to climate than many realize. In other words, our forests could burn in dry years with or without pine beetle.

Some of the findings are not particularly surprising: fire records going back several centuries show that years with a high number of fires coincide nicely with drought years (Whitlock, C. 2004, Nature). Given that all of Colorado is in drought (48% in exceptional drought; Gilpin and Boulder counties are “just” in severe drought), this is not good news for this coming fire season. As of March 19, our statewide snowpack is 77% of normal, and the South Platte River basin (where we are) is 68% of normal. This is essentially where we were in the extreme drought year of 2002. A few big snows could improve the picture, but every day that goes by without at least several feet diminishes our chances. Who knew we’d be looking back fondly on the epic snowfall that occurred 10 years ago?

Research shows that temperatures are also important in fire activity, perhaps even more of a factor than fire suppression or land-use factors. Warmer temperatures lead to early snowmelt, which in turn is a good predictor of fire frequency (Westerling, et al. 2006, Science). The large scale climate data analysis in Westerling’s study shows definitive trends towards earlier snowmelt over the past 35 years. Warmer-than-usual summers mean that the risk of fires increases again. Not only that, but the fires become much larger. This past decade was the warmest decade on record, and the forecast is for more of the same in future years. Fire season has lengthened to the point that there is no longer such a thing as a fire “season” – fires are occurring year round (such as the Galena fire, which blew up last week in Larimer County).

This does not mean that we mountain-dwellers should panic, but we should take notice. Start thinking through your evacuation plans and make sure your insurance is up to date. Ensure your home has a solid defensible space. Do your spring maintenance such as removing pine needles from your gutters, and move your firewood pile at least 30 feet from your house. And, of course, be very careful out there…

Mark your calendars and plan to attend our workshops to help you be better prepared:

Fire Preparedness Workshop: April 27 (Sat) 2:00-4:00 pm Gilpin Community Center. FREE. Metal reflective address signs will be for sale. RSVP’s appreciated: 303-582-9106.

Firewise Landscaping: May 11 (Sat) 9:00- 12:00 Nederland Community Center. FREE. D-space does not mean moonscape: learn to create a usable and attractive defensible space.

Chainsaw Safety Workshop: June 1 (Sat) 9:00-12:00 Gilpin Community Center. FREE. Learn how to fell trees safely with a chainsaw (indoor class/outdoor demo). Gilpin residents will be given preference; others will be wait-listed. Must RSVP as space is limited 303-582-9106.

Irene Shonle is the Director of the CSU Extension Office in Gilpin County, located at the Exhibit Barn, 230 Norton Drive, Black Hawk, CO 80422, 303-582-9106,

Colorado State University Extension provides unbiased, research-based information about, horticulture, natural resources, and 4-H youth development. Colorado State University Extension is dedicated to serving all people on an equal and nondiscriminatory basis.

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