CO Looking at ‘Normal’ Wildfire Season As Long-Awaited Firehawk Helicopter Goes Into Service

Noelle Phillips – The Denver Post

Colorado residents can expect a normal year for wildfires through July, but state officials on Wednesday warned that doesn’t mean there won’t be large, potentially catastrophic fires — especially later this summer and early fall as the weather becomes hotter and drier.

The fire forecast through July calls for normal wildfire conditions, thanks to an average snowpack in the mountains combined with temperatures a shade above average and moisture slightly below average, said Michael Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Those conditions “tell us we would probably have what will be a normal or average fire season, which is about 5,500 fires burning about 220,000 acres,” Morgan said during a news conference in Broomfield about the state’s 2024 wildfire outlook.

Southeastern Colorado and the San Luis Valley could see a higher number of wildfires earlier this year because of drier conditions, he said.

However, the weather forecast for late summer and early fall is concerning, Morgan said. Forecasts beyond 120 days are unpredictable, but an early look ahead suggests monsoon moisture will be low in Colorado after July.

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The snowpack will contribute to a lively growth season for grass and other plants, but if there is little rain, those plants will dry out, becoming fuel for wildfires as the summer wanes, he said.

“What we rely on are those monsoon moistures to keep those plants green through the rest of the year,” Morgan said. “That makes me a little nervous when we’re not seeing the monsoon forecast.”

The number of wildfires in Colorado and their intensity and complexity have grown exponentially since the 1990s amid drought conditions, a warming climate, declining forest health and an increasing number of homes being built in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface, according to the state’s 2024 Wildfire Preparedness Plan.

“Historical data presents a clear picture of the increasing problem of large wildfires and climatologists predict the problem is only going to get worse,” the plan’s authors wrote.

Colorado’s 20 largest recorded wildfires all occurred in the last two decades. And four of the state’s five largest wildfires, based on the number of acres burned, have happened since 2018. The top three — the enormous Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch wildfires — all burned in 2020.

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The state’s most destructive wildfire was the 2021 Marshall fire in Boulder County, where damage to homes and commercial property exceeded $2 billion.

Fire officials consider 2023 to have been a relatively average year for wildfire activity in Colorado, with 7,175 fires burning a total of 40,996 acres, according to the state preparedness plan.

During Wednesday’s news conference, state fire officials also gave an update on the $24 million Firehawk helicopter purchased in 2022 that has yet to take its first flight.

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The helicopter, which can carry 1,000 gallons of water and restock that water within 45 seconds, was delayed first because of supply chain issues. Then, in late January, the helicopter’s engine was recalled, Morgan said.

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The engine has been replaced and the helicopter should start going through testing Monday. Training for pilots and crew will follow and the Firehawk should be ready for its first mission by the first week of May, officials said.

The state has ordered a second Firehawk because the increasing number of fires across the West means Colorado cannot rely as much on the federal government for firefighting equipment, Gov. Jared Polis said. The state now is considering the purchase of two more helicopters.

“We made the decision a couple of years ago that we need to control our own resources,” Polis said. “We need to be able to deploy these resources to fight fires in Colorado when we need to, in real-time.”

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Noelle Phillips – The Denver Post Colorado residents can expect a normal year for wildfires through July, but state officials on Wednesday warned that doesn’t mean there won’t be large, potentially catastrophic fires — especially later this summer and early fall as the weather becomes hotter and drier. The fire forecast through July calls for […]

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