Experts predict lower-than-average fire risk this summer; Governor urges public to remain vigilant
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Local and state fire officials anticipate a lower risk for large wildfires in Routt County this summer, with even decreased potential for big burns in other parts of the state.
This comes as good news to many after one of the worst and most expensive fire seasons on record last summer.
Last fire season, a total of 229 fires burned more than 108,000 acres across Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Jackson and Grand counties — nearly double the acreage from 2017 and more than any fire season in the last 20 years.
Fire meteorologists forecast much of Colorado to see below-average potential for large fires through July, particularly the southern and central parts of the state. By August, they expect the risk for larger burns to be about average.
Officials attribute the improved forecast to a slightly above-average snowpack from this winter, according to Fire Management Officer Kevin Thompson with the south zone of the Routt National Forest.
Gov. Jared Polis announced the findings at the state’s annual wildfire briefing Tuesday but urged the public to remain vigilant about mitigating fire hazards in the coming months.
“I don’t want this average risk to lull people into a false sense of security,” Polis said at the AeroColorado hangar at Centennial Airport southeast of Denver.
The heavy winter and wet spring have helped protect the state from any early, big burns, according to Tim Mathewson, a fire meteorologist with the Bureau of Land Management. An April report from the bureau showed a recovery in drought conditions across the state in recent months, including in Routt County.
What: 2019 Wildfire Mitigation Conference
When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 11
Where: Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs
Cost: The event is free and open to the public
Mathewson expects wet weather to continue through May.
This shows an improvement from the extreme and exceptional drought conditions last year, which turned many forests into tinderboxes and led to large burns across the state.
So far, firefighters have not been called to any wildfires in Routt County, according to Colt Mortenson, a fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management’s northwest region.
He has responded to several fires in the western part of the state near Utah, where elevations are lower, but those have been quickly contained.
On a typical year, about 300 wildfires spark in Northwest Colorado, by Mortenson’s estimates. The region saw slightly fewer fires last year, but the ones that did burn were larger and harder to control.
“It became draining on the firefighters,” Mortenson said. “You would get done with one fire, and you move right to the next.”
He could not make a prediction for the number of fires this summer, but he and Thompson agree that wetter conditions should make for a milder season locally.
“We’re looking a lot better than we were last year,” Thompson said.
More than 137,000 acres had already burned across the state by this time last year, according to Mathewson. So far, only 7,000 acres have caught fire this year.
Nevertheless, fire managers are gearing up for a busy season.
As Thompson explained, the growing infestation of tree-killing beetles has exacerbated fire risk and led to larger, more frequent fires even in seasons with wetter conditions.
“We are seeing fires do things that historically they haven’t done,” he said in light of the beetle epidemic.
With forests accumulating dry, dead vegetation, Thompson said his agency has ramped up efforts this year to clear nearby forests of the debris. These include more prescribed burns and hiring new staff to take on additional timber projects.
Residents also can play a big role in protecting Routt County over the coming months.
To educate the public about current fire conditions and help residents reduce wildfires in their communities, county officials are coordinating with local, state and federal agencies to host the 2019 Wildfire Mitigation Conference on Saturday.
The event is free and open to the public.
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