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Wildfire Experts Predict Average Year For Colorado

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP/CBS4) – Wildfire experts predict an average year for fires in Colorado in 2014, welcome news after two consecutive seasons that were worse than average, Gov. John Hickenlooper said Monday.

But even an average year means fires could scorch more than 155 square miles, Hickenlooper warned.

“Normalcy should not in any way imply relaxing or a lack of vigilance,” he said.

Wearing a yellow firefighter’s shirt, Hickenlooper stood amid aircraft and fire trucks parked inside a hangar at Centennial Airport and discussed the annual wildfire outlook briefing he just received from state and federal wildfire managers.

“We’ve made a tremendous advance in last few years in terms of how we integrate our local firefighters with the state assets and the federal assets,” Hickenlooper said. “In our presentation we talked to the fire service and the (Bureau of Land Management). They are ready and capable to be our partners as well.”

Hickenlooper also signed three wildfire-related bills, one authorizing nearly $20 million for the state to buy two fire-spotting planes and contract for four helicopters and four single-engine tankers.

The state currently has contracts for only two single-engine tankers.

Rain and snow fell outside the hangar, leaving slush and puddles of water on the tarmac and prompting Hickenlooper to wish for more.

“We could certainly use more days like this,” he said.

A weekend storm dropped up to 2 feet of snow on parts of the state. Tim Mathewson, a meteorologist who works with regional firefighters, said spring moisture is important for lowering wildfire danger.

“This is a very critical time for moisture. We expect spring to be wet, which usually reduces our fire risk,” said Mathewson, who works at the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in suburban Denver, which oversees firefighting in Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Mathewson, who prepared a weather briefing for Hickenlooper, warned that even wet years can be dangerous, citing 1994, when a wildfire killed 14 firefighters in western Colorado.

The outlook is not uniformly positive. Southwestern Colorado remains dry, though not as dry as a year ago, Mathewson said. The southern foothills reaped some benefit from the weekend storm, but Durango and Pagosa Springs in the southwestern corner got less than a quarter-inch of water, he said.

Hickenlooper also signed bills Monday that authorize the state Water Resources and Power Development Authority to make loans for forest health projects and make technical revisions in the rules for prescribed burns.

A 2012 prescribed burn near Conifer southwest of Denver got out of control, killing three people and destroying two dozen homes.

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Wildfire Resources

- Visit CBSDenver.com’s Wildfire Resources section.

- Read recent Wildfire stories.

Wildfire Photo Galleries

- See images from the most destructive wildfires (Black Forest, Waldo Canyon, High Park and Fourmile) and largest wildfire (Hayman) in Colorado history.

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