An image of a firefighter silhouetted against a raging wildfire
In 2020, Colorado firefighters responded to three of the largest fires in state history. Credit: USFWS/Southeast

In November, Boulder County recorded measurable snowfall for the first time in more than 200 days. That snowfall ended the Denver region’s fifth-largest precipitation gap in history. 

Climate change is causing drier and hotter conditions, which have Colorado’s weather and fire professionals worried. Firefighters now face conditions at the end of fall they mainly used to face only from late spring through the summer, the state’s historical fire season.

In 2020, firefighters responded to three of the largest fires ever recorded in the state. The Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch fires covered more than 500,000 acres of land, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety. 

Those fires coincided with a period of long-term drought, which has stretched into 2021. Experts say this drought, combined with the high wind in recent weeks, has created conditions that are ripe for wildfires. 

“The fire weather season is getting longer, just because we haven’t gotten enough [precipitation] and have been in long-term drought conditions,” said Ayesha Wilkinson, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Boulder. 

Wilkinson said this first week of December — with daily temperatures near 70 degrees and very low humidity — has been unusually vulnerable to wildfires. Over the past weeks, the National Weather Service in Boulder has called several “red flag days,” indicating a higher risk of larger fires. 

While Boulder County is faced with especially challenging circumstances around fire risk, Wilkinson said this isn’t an isolated experience in Colorado. Low moisture levels have plagued the rest of the state, too. 

“Anyone in Colorado right now is experiencing some kind of drought,” she said.

The state has seen almost 1,000 wildland fires so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Those fires have burned slightly more than 30,000 acres, which pales in comparison to the more than 600,000 acres burned by the 1,080 wildland fires in 2020

Trouble for Fire Management

Despite the comparatively less-destructive fire season, Wilkinson says the present weather conditions have impacted firefighting efforts — a sentiment shared by Seth McKinney, the fire management officer for the Boulder County Sheriff’s office. 

“Last year was the hardest fire season we’ve had. This year, the real abnormality is that we don’t have moisture on the ground and it’s December,” he said. 

McKinney said Colorado’s snowpack, which feeds rivers running off the mountains, was “decent,” with an above-average monsoonal season tempering the fire danger throughout the end of the summer. 

“A lot of our fire season [depends] on the winter snowpack before,” McKinney said. 

While the summer was not as bad as the previous year, by a wide margin, the unusual weather conditions have dried up moisture that usually helps prevent fires. Both Wilkinson and McKinney say these conditions have extended the fire season in Boulder. 

That extension can cause issues for firefighting organizations, especially for those like Boulder County’s. The county hires a temporary workforce to help supplement the effort needed for a fire season each year. Initially, those firefighters worked for three months, starting in April. Now, McKinney says, they will work an average of six months before being laid off.

“We had an extended dry period [this year] and I kept my seasonal workforce on for an additional three weeks [longer] than I normally would,” he said. 

Those temporary workers stayed on the job until the week before Thanksgiving, but the risk of fires is still present across the county after the holiday. Boulder County put in place Stage 1 fire restrictions, banning most campfires and outdoor stove fires, on Nov. 30. 

“I’m understaffed for the conditions now,” said McKinney. “We don’t have seven-day staffing. We’re just on five-day staffing.” 

The impact of these unusual conditions has reached other firefighting organizations as well, including the Boulder Mountain Fire Protection District. 

Cindie Maita, a BMFPD firefighter and the organization’s public information officer, said they still have sufficient resources to combat fires. However, she also said that having few seasonal employees has left them with less of a workforce. Their temporary workers left in October, as the anticipated summer fire season passed.

“We do have more limited resources in-district at this time, day-to-day, than we would have in July [or] August,” Maita said. 

Maita also said the BMFPD has tried to increase public awareness around fire danger. Just this week, the organization asked those inside its district to clear pine needles from roofs and to keep firewood away from houses, alongside reminders on how to evacuate homes in case of a dangerous fire. 

“I would say we’re just a little more on edge every time the pager goes off, because we’re just not used to there being…wildland fires [in November and December],” she said.

For information on how to help lower fire risk and to be prepared in the event of a wildfire, visit the National Weather Service’s safety website.

Henry Larson was a summer 2022 reporting fellow at Boulder Reporting Lab. He was the editor-in-chief of the CU Independent, the University of Colorado Boulder’s digital student news outlet. His reporting has also appeared in CPR News and The Daily Camera.