After 2020’s megafires, officials feared this year would be worse. Why wasn’t it?
Shortly after wildfires scorched 625,000 acres of Colorado in 2020, fire officials began sounding the alarm that the upcoming summer could be even worse.
Last year’s season didn’t end until there was a decent amount of snow on the ground. It took several blankets of powder in North Routt County to put out the Middle Fork Fire, which burned more than 20,000 acres in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area well into November 2020.
The East Troublesome Fire that same year didn’t start until mid-October and burned across 300 square miles before being contained Nov. 30, 2020. The Cameron Peak Fire took even longer, contained Dec. 2, 2020, though it had started in August.
Soils that year were dry, even once covered with snow — though there hadn’t been enough.
That cocktail of factors didn’t inspire optimism as to how 2021’s fire season would play out. In May, Routt County fire officials warned residents should be hyper vigilant, clearing any potential fire hazards away from homes.
“Everybody should be aware,” Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Check Cerasoli said in May. “Fire is moving faster than we are used to and in unpredictable manners.”
With some snow on the ground and fire season starting to wrap up, 2021’s summer didn’t come close to last year. There have been 967 fires in Colorado this year, about 100 less than in 2020.
The real difference, though, is in acreage. Just over 31,000 acres have burned so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, just 5% of the area burned in 2020.
There isn’t any single reason this year didn’t live up to the hype. Fire officials say it was a mix of firefighters’ quick response, well-timed rain, a lack of wind and some luck, which should have people thankful things didn’t blow up like they did last year.
“We had a great influence of a good monsoon through the summertime, which really lessened the amount of fire that we had in the environment,” said Rocco Snart, planning branch chief with Colorado Department of Fire Prevention and Control. “We still had fires all over the place, and some of them were long-term fires. … But they weren’t super aggressive like we saw with 2020.”
Another factor was wind, or lack thereof, Snart said. The megafires in 2020 were so large because of sustained winds combined with dry conditions. That scenario just didn’t play out this year, which Snart said was pretty average.
“That was the brunt of what happened in 2020 — everything all just lined up,” Snart said. “We went into severe drought this year, but we went thought a lot of monsoonal pulses, where we got enough moisture to modify the fire environment and calm it down and keep things from tuning into the same mess we had last year.”
Lightning is especially problematic when conditions are so dry. Both the Muddy Slide and Morgan Creek fires in Routt County were started by a strike. But West Routt Fire Protection District Chief Trevor Guire said some of the smaller fires were started by strikes accompanied with some rain, preventing them from quickly getting out of control.
“We were thankful we were able to get on them quickly, because conditions were absolutely potentially catastrophic all summer long,” Guire said. “I would put it down to luck. We were very fortunate we didn’t have something take off on us.”
Guire recalled a day near the end of September when firefighters responded to four lightning-sparked fires, one after another.
“We had resources spread out north to south,” Guire said. “But we were able to handle them all with the help of some homeowners.”
Oak Creek Fire Protection District Chief Brady Glauthier was left scratching his head a bit this summer. The district’s firefighters were deployed to other fires across the West, but it didn’t seem to get as bad in Colorado.
“The rest of the states — it was rippin’. We went on 15 deployments. I mean, we were the busiest (this) season we’ve ever (been),” he said. “It just wasn’t here locally.”
What it comes down to for Glauthier is climate change making weather abnormal. It was unseasonably dry early this summer, which helped spark South Routt’s Muddy Slide Fire in June and North Routt’s Morgan Creek Fire in July — both of which are now 100% contained. Then monsoon rains came.
“Potential was there,” he said. “It was so dry, but luckily, we didn’t get any wind, and we didn’t get any starts.”
North Routt Fire Protection District Chief Mike Swinsick said he remembers several reported fires his crews chased where it turned out being just a charred tree. The lightning that had struck came with enough rain to prevent any fire from spreading.
“It just didn’t take off to the races a lot of times like we had anticipated,” he said.
The public also paid closer attention to fires this year, Swinsick said, which may have prevented many human-caused blazes.
A part of it, according to Swinsick, was also a little luck.
The Morgan Creek Fire was able to grow because it quickly got into dry timber, was sustained by wind and in a spot difficult for firefighters to access. But the location it burned was relatively ideal, he said.
“The way the winds were blowing, it was pushed into several older burn scars,” Swinsick said. “There were a lot of fuel breaks east of it and north, and I think that is what helped keep that from getting bigger than the Middle Fork did the year before.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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