In southwest Colorado this past winter, high country snowfall was abundant – overly so, from the viewpoint of mountain dwellers who had few breaks during the season of snow removal. The snowpack was well above the long-term average. Rivers ran high through the first couple weeks of June, reservoirs have filled and water users are assured of having enough, at least for this year.
Last week’s fluke house explosion and resulting 412-acre forest fire in Lightner Creek canyon withstanding, the outlook for the 2017 wildfire season is positive. While parts of the state are drier than this region, the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control says Colorado can expect an average to slightly below average wildfire season.
Though the wildfire picture is changing. Snowfall in recent years has ended early and abruptly, giving wildlands more time to dry out. As the climate continues to change, summers are likely to be hotter, drier and perhaps windier. According to the National Weather Service, wind gusts over 70 mph sparked the 17,000-acre Dead Dog Fire in Northwest Colorado in June, and temperatures in eastern Utah and western Colorado rose to over 10 degrees above normal with little to no precipitation except for a few isolated thunderstorms at elevation.
To further complicate predictions, few Colorado wildfires have natural causes – only 7 percent in 2016 – and human-caused fires can behave differently and catch hold faster than lightning-strike fires. The human-caused Brian Head fire in southern Utah that started on June 17th is only 65 percent contained, has consumed 66,768 acres, employed 1,789 personnel and has topped $15 million in costs.
So, in a time when the president is proposing deep budget cuts and the GOP-controlled congress is likely to agree with many of them, it is essential that federal wildfire mitigation and firefighting funding be preserved. Elected officials should think of it as defense spending, because that is really what it is.
If 2017 plays out as a year with few catastrophic wildfires, budgeters casting about for cuts will mistakenly believe that the wildland fire budget is overfunded and can safely be cut. That is an easy mistake for someone sitting in Washington to make, especially those with a small-government philosophy and a bias against climate-change data.
But one strong argument against transferring those lands to the states is the problem of firefighting. Local agencies cannot do it. A federal firefighting force will always be needed, and funding wildfire efforts on a federal level only makes sense. These wetter, safer years will be a time to work on prevention.
Congressional delegations from western states should push hard to ensure that the firefighting equipment is upgraded, firefighters are paid and funding is in the bank for the next year of big fires.