Officials Anticipate Another Record Breaking Season
Around this time last year, images of blood red skies and ash raining from the sky in mountain towns across the West interrupted the COVID-19 pandemic’s domination of the news cycle. Videos of smoke filling the sky and commercial-sized jets dropping flame retardants as they flew low over the foothills of Colorado’s Front Range caught national attention in October of 2020. In the spring of 2021, residents of the Front Range may have again noticed a significant amount of aerial activity from helicopters, similar to the amount seen during fire season, as the Colorado National Guard trained for another bad fire season.
Wildfire season is a regular, naturally-occurring phenomenon in Western States. In recent years, however, the intensity and length of wildfire season has increased significantly. According to the Insurance Information Institute, about 50,477 wildfires burned approximately 4.7 million acres of land nationwide in 2019. In 2020 there were about 58,950 fires which burned about 10.1 million acres. In Colorado, about 700,000 acres were burned from three major wildfires that were the three largest in state history.
In response to the increasing threat of wildfires, the Colorado government recently passed a bill called Wildfire Risk Mitigation. According to the bill, “the act allows the forest service to issue forest restoration and wildfire risk mitigation grants for projects on federal lands.” The bill will allow personnel to enter federal or state-owned lands where they can remove fuel sources that could cause a wildfire to grow out of control. Legislators hope the bill will minimize the risk of wildfires happening in the future and reduce the harmful consequences which the fires impose.
In addition to the bill, Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control released an update of their wildfire preparedness plan, “based on lessons learned from the 2020 fire year.” This year’s version explains the causes of wildfires in Colorado and how current environmental conditions have caused fires over the years. Compared to last year’s plan, this year’s compares previous fires and the financial impact from the fires in a simple manner that people who seek information to stay safe with can easily find and look over.
The Fire Division is also in support of the Wildfire Risk Mitigation bill. “The Division, along with its fire service partners and stakeholders, greatly appreciate the leadership from the Governor and the Legislature for their willingness to be proactive in the providing of additional suppression resources,” they said in the plan.
When wildfires occur naturally, it can revitalize the ecosystem by making room for more sunlight and cleaning debris from forest floors. Natural fires can clear out competition so other plants and trees can grow stronger and healthier. With fewer plants taking up so much water, rivers hold more water, benefitting other plants and animals downstream. Small, natural fires can kill insects and diseases that can harm the plants and trees. The insects then become nutrients for the soil. Now however, most wildfires that occur grow to a size far beyond what could be considered natural or ecologically healthy.
Many experts and environmentalists tie the increasing intensity of wildfires to global warming. Dr. Deserai Crow is a professor at CU Denver who specializes in researching climate change like fires and floods, and how actions by the government affect the environment. She says that due to Colorado’s abnormally hot and dry conditions, it’s easier for fires to reach a catastrophic level. The more property damage and numbers of fatalities continues to increase with each fire season, the more the situation becomes harder and harder to ignore.
She says the recent wildfires affect all of us. Not only do the fires cause physical damage to structures and the environment, but the smoke that they emit can cause health problems for people across the state and surrounding area. According to the American Lung Association, “Studies of children in California found that children who breathed the smoky air during wildfires had more coughing, wheezing, bronchitis, colds, and were more likely to have to go to the doctor or to the hospital for respiratory causes, especially from asthma.”
Dr. Crow also worries about how more houses are being built in dry areas where there is higher risk of fires: “There needs to be a serious discussion on whether houses should be built in dry areas around Colorado.” A 2020 statement from the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association (RMIIA) says that “damage estimates now total $614 million from insurance claims that include smoke damage, additional living expenses, damaged and destroyed homes, as well as personal belongings and vehicles.”
Climate change is responsible for the worsening wildfires, according to Dr. Crow, and not enough is being done to combat this root issue at the national level. “We can’t stop climate change unless we actually do something,” says Dr. Crow. “We can’t ignore it anymore, we waited too long.” Scientists on a worldwide scale say that climate change is now the worst it has ever been. The recently released UN climate report predicts that disasters like wildfires, floods and other extreme weather will continue to occur more often.
Dr. Crow says that people should start to think about the serious damage that climate change has already caused and act accordingly. She says we must pressure government officials to take more action on climate change, support sustainable and environmentally conscious companies, and make sustainable choices as individuals. She strongly believes that there should be more grants and funding given to scientists’ teams for research and development in the environmental sector. She says, “this is our new reality, and it will keep getting worse.” Dr. Crow wants people to ask themselves what kind of world they want to live in, and what they can do to make that world a reality.
This article is from Volume 07, Issue 03: