Coloradans can expect a less severe wildfire season this year thanks to large amounts of snow in the mountains and predictions that temperatures will be about average through the summer.
But an average wildfire season in Colorado still means that more than 6,000 fires will likely burn more than than 100,000 acres, not including fires on federal lands. Despite an expected reprieve this year, fire experts predict that the state’s wildfire seasons over time will continue to become more intense and more dangerous due to a build of natural fuels such as declining forest health and a growing population of people living in wildfire-prone areas.
“It’s difficult with any certainty to predict exactly what’s going to happen this year, but with the current forecast that’s what we’re looking at,” said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, the state’s fire agency.
Fire officials welcomed the change after last year’s busy fire season that burned more than 819 square miles of the state and cost more than $40 million to suppress. Of the state’s 20 largest fires in history, five burned last year. All 20 have occurred since 2000.
Fires in the state have become more common and more intense over the past two decades, Gov. Jared Polis said last week after being briefed by state officials about the predicted 2019 season. The fires threaten an increased number of people and buildings as Colorado’s forests become more populated. About 2.9 million people live in the state’s wildland urban interface — or areas where homes and buildings are constructed within or next to flammable vegetation.
“What has changed is two things: increased population and climate change,” Polis said. “Both of those have factored into this tremendous increase in fires that exceed the local ability of counties to deal with and why our state and federal government and our partners need to step up to deal with fires.”
When a wildfire starts, municipal and county agencies first attempt to control the flames. If the fire becomes too large or intense for those groups, the state then assumes control. Eighteen fires rose to state-level responsibility last year, more than double the average for the previous 17 years.
“Since the 1990s, the number, intensity, and complexity of wildfires in Colorado have been growing exponentially, and experts predict that it will continue to worsen,” the state’s 2019 wildfire preparedness plan said.
When predicting a fire season, officials look at weather forecasts, snowpack and topography, Morgan said. Officials expect average temperatures and average to slightly above-average precipitation across the state through the spring and summer. Last year was warmer and drier than normal.
Officials urged people living and traveling in wildfire areas to take precautions.
“I don’t want this average risk to lull anybody into a false sense of security,” Polis said.
Some counties have already seen their first wildfires of the season. A small brush fire burned half an acre in Silverthorne in April. A fire in Las Animas County scorched about 1,600 acres also in April.
Wildfires in Colorado and the U.S.
The map shows active wildfire locations in 2019*. The map defaults to Colorado; to see all wildfires, click “U.S.” in the view area. Click the map layers icon in the top right corner of the map to change map backgrounds and to toggle active and contained fires. Click a marker for details. To view the full map and a table of all 2019 wildfires, click here.