Colorado wildfires: State shifts strategy to “fight fires when they are small”

Facing a worsening wildfire predicament, Colorado leaders on Thursday braced for more big burns and declared they’re shifting state strategy and millions in funds toward early detection and aggressive rapid response to squelch flames before they spread.

More aerial assets including a $24 million helicopter, prepositioning of air tankers that haul water and fire-snuffing slurry, and increased teamwork among local, state and federal agencies have placed Colorado in what officials described as an unprecedented state of readiness.

RELATED: “They’re getting bigger, faster”: Colorado braces for what’s next after last year’s explosive wildfires

“We expect dry conditions to make this fire season especially challenging,” Gov. Jared Polis said after a meeting of federal and state authorities.

“I want everybody to get involved and do their part to prevent wildfires in Colorado communities,” Polis said.

Fires that burn forests and other natural areas threaten the state economically, he said. “They’re critical to attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists every year… Our outdoor areas have been a sanctuary for us during this pandemic.”

State officials said budgetary shifting will direct roughly $15 million more of the wildfire funds approved by lawmakers toward rapid response as soon as flames are detected.  A $24 million modified military helicopter called a Firehawk is expected to be ready by June  2022. This year, state officials said they’ll spend $3 million to deploy a similar helicopter for aggressive “initial attack” of wildfires.

Two early warning planes that Colorado purchased in 2015 have detected more than 400 small wildfires, enabling local firefighters to extinguish fires before they became newsworthy, said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

“We want to fight fires when they are small. We want to be aggressive in how we attack them to keep them small,” Morgan said.

The rising overall spending related to wildfires “is a lot of money, but when you look at the $285 million” spent scrambling to contain record-large ruinous megafires in 2020 and the damages these cause, a strategy of fighting small fires early “is saving money in the long run,” Morgan said.

Fire plays an essential role ecologically, as a necessary natural process. Climate warming, forest fuel buildup due to wildfire suppression, aridity and increased people out in natural areas for recreation have led to more and bigger wildfires.

Among the state’s 20 largest wildfires, 15 occurred since 2012. Last year, wildfires including the three biggest in the state’s recorded history burned 667,000 acres. These included the Cameron Peak fire that burned 208,913 acres, or about 326 square miles, and damaged 469 buildings, 224 of them homes.

Natural conditions increasingly favor big burns, and state officials said 5,284 wildfires that broke out in Colorado last year went out or were snuffed by firefighters before they grew.

Federal and state forestry officials long have advised increased work to improve the health of ailing, insect-ravaged forests — selective tree-thinning, logging and use of prescribed fire — as the most cost-efficient pathway to revitalize degraded terrain and reduce the severity of wildfires.

State officials on Thursday said “mitigation” to help make fires less severe and ruinous will be just as important as firefighting. However, prescribed fires this year probably cannot be done, Morgan said.

“We don’t anticipate that the weather conditions and the drought conditions are going to be favorable to do a lot of fire on the landscapes for mitigation.”

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