Here’s a real reason to complain about Colorado’s lack of snow this fall: It allowed the Green Mountain Fire to scare a whole lot of people on Monday night.
Little precipitation has reached the metro area lately, leaving Denver and much of eastern Colorado in moderate drought. The exposed grasses of Green Mountain, combined with high winds, allowed the fire to quickly burn through about 100 acres of open space — small by wildfire standards, but it was dangerously close, highly visible and fairly unusual for this time of year.
“From a historical perspective, [a late November fire] would be considered somewhat odd,” said Division Chief Steve Aseltine, a 22-year veteran of West Metro Fire Rescue, the main department responding to last night’s fire.
Normally, Colorado’s wildfire season typically lasts from May through September, but researchers and some firefighters alike report that fires are getting more unpredictable in hotter, dryer weather.
“However,” Aseltine continued, “what we’ve found over the last five to ten years is that the wildfire season does not really follow any standard, cyclical pattern. We’ve had fairly busy fire activity in the late fall and early spring.”
It’s impossible, of course, to link a single fire to a global phenomenon like climate change. “There’s always potential for wildfire in lower elevations, and especially grass areas where the fuels are dormant and there’s a lack of snow cover,” said Caley Fisher, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
But this late-season incident does fit a larger pattern:
By one measure, the “length of the season in the West has increased by 78 days since the 1970s,” the New York Times reported. A record 10.1 million acres burned in the U.S. last year, and five of the largest burn years have happened in the last decade, according to federal records that go back to 1960.
(It’s worth noting, though, that wildfires burned many times more acres in the 1930s, before modern fire control and infrastructure was available.)
Regardless, the fire season for the Southern Rockies “has consistently increased from the 1970s from 31 days (1 month) to 117 days (4 months) due to warming over this period,” Tania Schoennagel, a research scientist at CU Boulder, wrote in an email to me.
And researchers at Harvard have calculated that the amount of acreage burned along the Front Range could double by 2050 and the season could be another three weeks longer.
Now, the Green Mountain Fire could have been worse.
But Colorado, fortunately, is just breaking out of that hot, dry pattern that has dominated the fall season.
“It was surprising last night that there was so much fire activity, considering that humidity was 35 percent,” said Ronda Scholting, a spokeswoman for the fire department. Temperatures were also near freezing, but winds gusting near 30 mph spread the initial fire from just 5 acres to nearly 100 at its peak.
The volatile wind combined with the mountain’s steep slope to drive the fire up and down its dips and valleys, sometimes allowing fingers of flame to break far out from the main body of the fire.
Departments from across the Front Range had sent assistance, and it was well justified: more than 4,000 homes were issued pre-evacuation alerts as the fire spread unpredictably in its early hours. Some firefighters advanced through the burned areas to catch up with the flames, while others deployed with hoses to protect the subdivisions at the base of the mountain or took brush trucks with water tanks to fight the fire where they could.
Ultimately, a break in the winds allowed the deployment of some 160 firefighters to make rapid gains on the fire starting around 9 p.m., just a few hours after it started.
The cause of the fire still isn’t known, but the Lakewood Police Department and federal authorities are investigating. Further wildfire threats across the West should diminish as winter takes hold, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, but a less-than-normal amount of snow and precipitation could worsen fires next spring.
What you can do:
It’s unclear just how close the fire got to any homes, but those in its path seemed to be well protected against fire, according to Aseltine.
From what he saw, the homeowners had created “defensible space,” keeping trees and flammable objects away from their homes, and they’d kept their yards cleanly maintained.
Here are some more tips from the Colorado State Forest Service, which are especially relevant for people living near the border between the urban and the wild:
- Clean pine needles, leaves and other debris from roofs and gutter at least twice a year. This eliminates an ignition source for firebrands, especially during hot, dry weather.
- Stack firewood away from your house. Locate firewood at least 30 feet uphill from your home. Do not stack firewood under the deck.
- Remove unhealthy vegetation. Trees and shrubs that are stressed, diseased, dead or dying should be removed so that they do not become a fuel source for potential fires.
- Create defensible space at a minimum of 100 feet around a home. Increase this distance if the structure is located on a slope.
- Thin out continuous tree and brush (shrub) cover around structures. Remove flammable vegetation from within the initial 15 feet around structures.
- Beyond the initial 15-30 feet, thin trees to achieve a 10-foot crown spacing. Occasionally, clumps of two or three trees are acceptable for a more natural appearance, if additional space surrounds them.
- Mow grasses and weeds to a height of six inches or less for a distance of 30 feet from all structures.
- Prune tree branches within the defensible space up to a height of 10 feet above ground.
- Dispose of all slash and debris left from thinning by chipping, hauling away or piling for burning later. Always contact your county sheriff’s office or local fire department first for information about burning slash piles. Contact your local CSFS District or Field Office for information regarding chipping and other removal options.
- Remove shrubs and small trees or other potential ladder fuels from beneath large trees. Left in place, these fuels can carry a ground fire into tree crowns.
- Trim any branches extending over roofs, and remove branches within 10 feet of chimneys.
- Place liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) containers at least 30 feet from structures. Clear anything flammable, including vegetation from within 10 feet of all tanks.