Monday, March 8, sported a Red Flag Warning, begging the question: Does fire season now span from early March until the end of December?
According to Seth McKinney, fire management officer in the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, it all depends. But it might not even be worth referring to it as “a season” anymore.
“Historically, conditions used to support the term ‘fire season,’ because most fires happened in the summer months,” McKinney said. “But in the last 20 to 30 years, fire season has expanded an average of 60 to 90 days. And even outside that typical season we’re seeing these conditions of extreme fire danger.”
A changing climate is changing how we define our fire risk. And the new reality is that we’re always living in a “fire environment,” according to McKinney. But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t variability. Fire risk will continue to ebb and flow over the year based on precipitation. Just as an established snowpack can offset the risk brought by a windy day, so too can a summer monsoon counteract the kindling of vegetation dried out in June and July.
As McKinney said, there are now “shoulder fire seasons” to worry about, which explains this week’s Red Flag Warning. Early and late winter often bring wind, and if there’s no snow on the ground or if spring rains haven’t started, that sets us up for disaster. These were the conditions of the Marshall Fire — high winds without snow, with vegetation still dormant and no moisture in its above-ground biomass.
“The reality is, we just have to adapt,” McKinney said. “It’s about taking responsibility and ownership of living here.”
That responsibility, in McKinney’s opinion, means understanding fire danger while also being more proactive in managing the landscape. He cited prescribed burns as a way to do this, which he, along with his team and others, are doing in irrigation ditches across the county. Several irrigation ditches are being burned to clear out grass and other vegetation that is there to remove excess water from agricultural fields. Though the dormant grasses are a fire risk in high wind, they’re also primed to burn via prescribed burns.
“For burning out ditches, those are the exact kind of fuels that we want,” McKinney said. “So really it’s timing it with ideal weather conditions, like a cooler day without any wind.”
McKinney acknowledged that while some people are likely more tentative with any kind of flames post Marshall Fire, such burning has been a constant in Colorado’s agricultural practice for some time.
“Agricultural burning is well-protected in the state,” he said. “Farmers have been doing it for decades.”
And Native Americans, he said, were burning the land with consistency. So it’s time to bring some of that back in a safe fashion that works with our modern life. As it currently stands, McKinney said, we’re “barely scratching the surface” of the amount of fire we should be setting across our county. And some people are in tune with this need. McKinney said his office is fielding calls from residents requesting he come burn their properties.
“Wildfire has been here, running around the landscape long before humans ever were,” he said.