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Colorado’s 2014 Wildfire Season Mild Compared To Recent Devastation

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Alkali Fire (credit: Lauren Blair, Craig Daily Press)

Alkali Fire (credit: Lauren Blair, Craig Daily Press)

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DENVER (CBS4) - After the Alkali Fire charred roughly 21,000 acres of brush and grass in northwestern Colorado last month, the state’s so-far timid wildfire season limped meekly through July.

To be certain, a 21,000-acre wildland fire is no weakling. That’s nearly 33 square miles, larger than some of the most devastating blazes in recent Colorado history.

But the Alkali is the rare monster this year, comprising approximately 80 percent of all acres that burned through the end of the month. Most other fires passed unnoticed by comparison. Even the Alkali drew relatively scant attention because of its remote location.

“If you look at 2012 and 2013, by this time in those two years, we were way over the top — so far as the number of fires, the number of burned acres and, unfortunately, the number of burned homes at that point in time. It was much more significant,” says Rocco Snart, the section chief for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

By July 28 this year, 589 fires burned 26,544 acres in Colorado, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Through the same date last year, 796 fires claimed 193,273 acres. Two years ago, 1,041 fires torched 224,559 acres.

This year, credit a wet spring and summer, significant snowpack, lessened drought conditions and a lack of persistent heat — all hallmarks of a wetter weather pattern throughout Colorado this year, Snart says.

Data on July 29 showed most state river basins boasted higher snowpack levels, with the North Platte leading at 141 percent of normal. And the U.S. Drought Monitor reported a stark difference in Colorado’s drought: Last July, the entire state experienced some kind of drought conditions. By July 22 this year, only 40 percent of the state suffered some drought and less than 1 percent of the state was in exceptional drought.

Compare that to weather patterns in 2012 and 2013 when heat, lightning and wind rapidly sparked wildfires. But the National Interagency Fire Center forecasts the Rocky Mountain region — Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and parts of Wyoming and the Dakotas — will see a much smaller number of burned acres this year.

By the end of July the last two seasons, several major fires destroyed more than 1,000 homes in subdivisions outside of Colorado Springs and Fort Collins.

In 2013:

* The Black Forest Fire, now the most destructive wildfire in state history, burned 14,280 acres, destroyed 486 homes and killed two after it began on June 11 north of Colorado Springs.

* The East Peak Fire in southern Colorado claimed 13,572 acres and forced evacuation notices for Walsenburg residents before it was contained on July 9.

* The West Fork Fire Complex started June 5 and burned 110,405 acres after three separate fires merged near Wolf Creek Pass in southwestern Colorado. It’s the second-largest wildfire by area in state history, eclipsed only by 2002’s Hayman Fire, which burned nearly 138,000 acres.

In 2012:

* The High Park Fire killed one person, burned 87,284 acres and destroyed at least 250 homes after it began on June 9 west of Fort Collins. It was the most destructive wildfire in state history until the Waldo Canyon Fire began a few days later.

* The Waldo Canyon Fire began June 23 and claimed 18,247 acres before crews extinguished it in mid-July. It killed two people and destroyed 346 homes northwest of Colorado Springs.

* The Little Sand Fire in the San Juan National Forest burned approximately 25,000 acres before being contained in late July.

A firefighter battles flames in the Black Forest Fire in 2013. (credit: Colorado Springs Fire Department)

A firefighter battles flames in the Black Forest Fire in 2013. (credit: Colorado Springs Fire Department)

The calm fire season this year doesn’t mean Colorado won’t endure another tough one. In fact, grasses and trees fed by weeks of rain grow. And growth means fuel and potential for devastating blazes. This season, fire missed its usual accomplice — lots of lightning — and that has helped.

“You’ll have more fuel, but the question is: Are there any ignitions? There haven’t been a lot of ignition periods because there hasn’t been a lot of lightning until the last week or so,” Snart says.

Still, dry fuels just need just a small spark.

“They’re more receptive to fire,” he says.

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