Colorado wildfire experts are warning that conditions are setting up for wildfires as bad as last year, when the three largest forest fires on record burned for months. But this time, they think the state may be better prepared.
Millions of dollars, multiple aircraft and coordinated partnerships between local, state and federal agencies are all teed up to allow firefighters to make aggressive initial attacks on potentially devastating wildfires before they rage out of control.
“I’ve never seen more of a state of readiness than we have today,” Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said Thursday at a news conference where the state released its 2021 Wildfire Preparedness Plan.
This year, state fire managers are focused on making sure resources are in the right places at the right time to quickly respond to fires in high-risk areas. They know a fast response works in preventing major disasters based on how the Elephant Butte and Chatridge 2 fires, close to homes in Jefferson and Douglas counties, were kept in check last summer.
“We’re trying to provide more resources to the local fire chiefs and the local sheriffs to keep fires from getting large,” Mike Morgan, director of the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said at the news conference. “We spend a little bit more money today, but we don’t have as many long-duration events as a result of that.”
A total of 6,761 wildfires burned more than 744,120 acres in Colorado last year. Three fires alone — also the three largest fires in recorded state history — burned the majority of the acreage: Cameron Peak, at 208,913; East Troublesome, at 193,812, and Pine Gulch, at 139,007. Hundreds of homes burned and two people died.
Conditions are looking just as bad as last year as a persistent drought will likely continue and forecasts for the next three months anticipate more warm, dry weather. But better coordination and more dedicated resources may make the difference.
Gov. Jared Polis signed one bill last month increasing available money for firefighting aircraft, and another to purchase a specialized Firehawk helicopter, though it won’t be in the state’s fleet until mid-2022.
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