2018 wildfire season breaks records across Northwest Colorado
CRAIG — Like much of the West, Northwest Colorado saw one of its most expensive wildfire seasons in 2018. This year’s extreme heat and drought resulted in more volatile fires that consumed more acres than in years past.
“It was the busiest year we’ve had in the last 10 years, by far,” said Colt Mortenson, fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management’s northwest region. “Usually, you get a fire, you get a rest, and then another comes up. It pulses. But this year, it didn’t pulse. It began about the 20th of June and lasted straight through until October.”
A total of 229 fires charred more than 108,000 acres across Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Jackson and Grand counties, including some acreage burned across the border into neighboring Wyoming and Utah, according to Mortenson. That is nearly double what burned in 2017 and more than any fire season in the past 20 years.
The fires strapped local and national resources, destroyed grazing lands and sage grouse habitat and cost local, state and national agencies lots of money.
“When you have fires burning in forest, like the Ryan Fire and Silver Creek Fire, (which) burned for up to 100 days … those are really, really expensive fires,” Mortenson said.
The Silver Creek fire near Kremmling, which burned 20,120 acres in Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, cost an estimated $25 million.
The reason behind so many record-breaking numbers in this year’s fire season is a weather year that also broke records. Most of Northwest Colorado and the Western Slope experienced the hottest year on record for the 2018 water year, according to a report from the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University.
In Routt County, about half of the county saw its warmest water year on record, while parts of central and south Routt saw temperatures in ranges that placed it among the top 10 percent of the record.
“Now a lot of people are talking about how our fire season has gone from 100 days to 150 days. It’s getting warmer and seems to be getting drier,” Mortenson said. “The number of fires we’ve had in the last 20 years has increased, and the severity of the fires has increased.”
Two homes were destroyed in the Divide Fire, about 23 miles north of Craig, but it also left its mark on residents and ranchers in other ways. Miles upon miles of agricultural fencing burned as did grazing land. Cattle rancher Wes McStay was one of several ranchers who felt the sting. About 1,800 of his acres burned in the fire as well as 500 acres of permitted BLM grazing lands and at least eight miles of fencing.
“It’s $10,000 to $12,000 a mile to replace it. It hurts,” McStay said, noting that it was a tough summer all-around for him and his neighbors due to drought. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it, the hottest and driest I’ve ever seen it. Everybody struggled, not just us.”
McStay also lamented the fire’s impact on sage grouse habitat, burning a field on his property that was home to the state’s largest sage grouse lek, or mating ground.
“I’ve been working on this sage grouse thing for the last 20 years, and much of what I’ve done just went up in smoke,” McStay said. “It’s disappointing.”
A total of 38,100 acres of sage grouse habitat burned in Northwest Colorado this year.
“The challenge with sage grouse habitat is that invasive annual grasses can replace the sagebrush,” BLM spokesperson David Boyd wrote in an email. “Also, in areas where habitat is limited, there may not be many areas for birds displaced from a large fire to go.”
The ecological costs of fire are often eventually outweighed by the benefits, when new growth in the landscape emerges in the years to come. Meanwhile, the exact financial cost of the 2018 fire season won’t be known until spring.
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