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Bracing for more big wildfires, Colorado leaders shift strategy to “fight fires when they are small”

Early detection and rapid response emphasized as leaders anticipate above normal risk

The Pine Gulch wildfire burns north of Grand Junction, Colorado on Thursday evening, Aug. 20, 2020.
The Pine Gulch wildfire burns north of Grand Junction, Colorado on Thursday evening, Aug. 20, 2020.

Facing a worsening wildfire predicament, Colorado leaders on Thursday braced for more big burns and declared they’re shifting state strategy and millions of taxpayer dollars toward early detection and aggressive rapid response to squelch flames before they spread.

More aerial assets including a $24 million helicopter, prepositioning of air tankers that haul water and fire-snuffing slurry, and increased teamwork among local, state and federal agencies have placed Colorado in what officials described as an unprecedented state of readiness.

RELATED: “They’re getting bigger, faster”: Colorado braces for what’s next after last year’s explosive wildfires

“Colorado used to talk about a fire season. It is now a year-round phenomenon,” Gov. Jared Polis said after a meeting of federal and state authorities, referring to the impacts of climate change.

“We expect dry conditions to make this fire season especially challenging. … I want everybody to get involved and do their part to prevent wildfires in Colorado communities,” he said.

And fires that burn in forests and other natural areas threaten the state economically, he said. “They’re critical to attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists every year… Our outdoor areas have been a sanctuary for us during this pandemic.”

This Colorado tilt toward fighting fire rather than living with it carries risks of throwing already ailing forests and grasslands more out of balance. Wildfire plays an essential role in nature, crucial for regeneration and species diversity. State and federal officials on Thursday acknowledged a deepening ecological dilemma and lagging long-planned forest health work that could increase resilience in forests so that wildfires would burn less severely.

But hotter and drier conditions increasingly favor big burns. The core “wildfire season” in the state has increased by 78 days since the 1970s, officials said, with fires breaking out even in freezing temperatures.  And human population expansion into burn zones — Polis pointed to some 300,000 houses built in woods requiring “perimeter defense” against wildfire — increasingly constrains what land managers can do.

Colorado officials are prioritizing wildfire suppression, said Jacque Buchanan, deputy regional director for the U.S. Forest Service.

“There’s no leeway” and nature “is pushing us,” Buchanan said, referring to “high population areas” near federally-managed forests where “the quicker you put it out” the better for people.

“We cannot let up on forest treatments, the fuels reduction. But the reality is — and last year was a slap upside the head — we have a lot of things at risk and we’ve got to deal with the current reality,” she said.

State officials said budgetary shifting will direct roughly $15 million more of the annual wildfire-related spending approved by lawmakers toward rapid response and suppression as soon as fires are detected.  A $24 million modified military helicopter called a Firehawk with 1,000-gallon tanks and a retractable tube for quick re-filling from ponds is expected to be ready by June  2022. This year, state officials are spending $3 million to deploy a similar helicopter for aggressive “initial attack” against wildfires.

Two early-warning airplanes that Colorado purchased in 2015 have detected more than 400 small wildfires, enabling local firefighters to extinguish flames before they became newsworthy, said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

“We want to fight fires when they are small. We want to be aggressive in how we attack them to keep them small,” Morgan said.

The rising overall spending to deal with intensifying wildfires “is a lot of money, but when you look at the $285 million” spent scrambling to contain record-size megafires in 2020 and the damages these cause, a strategy of snuffing small fires before they grow “is saving money in the long run,” Morgan said.

Climate warming, forest fuel buildup due to past wildfire suppression, increasing aridity, and more people living and working near forests has led to more frequent and larger wildfires in Colorado.

Among the state’s 20 largest wildfires, 15 occurred since 2012. Last year’s fires — including the three biggest in the state’s recorded history — burned 667,000 acres. The Cameron Peak Fire burned 208,913 acres, or about 326 square miles, and damaged 469 buildings, 224 of them homes.

At least 5,300 wildfires broke out in Colorado during 2020, federal authorities said. Of these, 5,284 went out naturally or were snuffed by firefighters before they grew.

Federal and state forestry experts long have advocated increased work to improve the health of insect-ravaged forests — selective tree-thinning, logging and use of prescribed fire — as the most cost-efficient way to revitalize degraded terrain and reduce the severity of wildfires.

Colorado officials on Thursday said “mitigation” to help keep inevitable wildfires manageable will be just as important as firefighting. State forester Mike Lester pointed to planned projects that would restore patchy, multispecies forests strategically to help protect communities.

Forest tree-thinning must continue, Morgan said. However, prescribed fires this year likely must be limited, depending on wind and spring rain, he said.

“We don’t anticipate that the weather conditions and the drought conditions are going to be favorable to do a lot of prescribed fire on the landscapes for mitigation.”