USA — FORT COLLINS — With low snowpack and a dry landscape, fire experts are bracing for another tough summer, spring and maybe even winter of fires. And on the heels of last year’s devastating wildfires, Larimer County officials worry about destructive and possibly deadly floods due to increased runoff.
Several area officials asked U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, during a meeting in Fort Collins Tuesday, to help prevent further devastation by securing federal dollars for mitigation as well as ensuring adequate air tankers and helicopters to quickly attack fires from above before they grow out of control.
Snowpack levels in the South Platte Basin are low, at 60 percent of average, and vegetation is dry and crunchy. Indicators that measure how dry grasses and other vegetation may be say that the potential for large fires is high.
“We’re looking at a brown Colorado,” said Poudre Fire Authority Chief Tom DeMint. “It should be green.”
He worries that 2013 will be “a second verse” to the fire devastation of 2012 with the fire season growing longer and longer each year. Last year, crews were working a wildfire in Rocky Mountain National Park into late December, and two small fires ignited over the weekend on the Pawnee National Grassland from recreational shooting.
Meteorologists predict there may be a break in the dryness in late spring from March through May that could catch the area up as far as precipitation. However, Mother Nature can change her mind at a moment’s notice.
But fires are not the only worry on the horizon for Larimer County.
Suzanne Bassinger, fire recovery manager, stressed the potential for dangerous floods because of the barren landscape and nonporous soils left behind by the High Park Fire. Runoff has been up to six times faster and higher than average, and the county does not have updated maps of the biggest flood risk areas, Bassinger said.
“It’s a significant risk, not only to the residents that live up there, but also to the folks going up and down our highways,” she said.
Larimer County has spent $2 million to upgrade culverts on Rist Canyon Road but Poudre Canyon Road, a state highway maintained by Colorado Department of Transportation, also is at risk. And if floods wash out that road, access to neighborhoods for emergency services, including to fight potential new fires, would be cut off or detoured hundreds of miles, added Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith.
“That’s our number one priority, lives and homes,” added DeMint. “But it also comes back to impact our drinking water and our recreation.”
Udall was in Fort Collins to listen to those dealing with the aftermath of last year’s fire and preparing for potential floods or new fires this year. He wanted to hear specifics to share with other legislators in Washington D.C. in hopes of swaying the majority to divert more money to Colorado for watershed protection and firefighting resources.
Spending the money now, Udall said, would prevent a higher cost in the future in terms of emergency mulching and other measures to slow runoff and protect water supplies and in fighting fires and picking up the pieces after a devastating burn.
Many local governments are working with each other, with volunteers and with state and federal agencies to mulch as many acres as possible to protect the watershed and help slow runoff and potential flooding. Greeley, Fort Collins and the Tri Districts began mulching key watersheds directly after the fire with their own money, covering about 3,000 acres, half the recommended, and are ready to jump in again in the spring, and the U.S. Forest Service spent $3 million treating its lands after the High Park Fire.
While plans are in place to continue efforts this spring, cities and agencies need federal help to pay for it, and perhaps their cooperation and foresight could help convince federal lawmakers to open some funding, noted Greeley Mayor Tom Norton.
Colorado had a handful of highly publicized fires, including the High Park west of Fort Collins and Woodland Heights outside Estes Park, however, more than 4,000 total burned in the state, noted Paul Cooke of the Colorado Division of Fire Safety and Programs. Most were handled by local fire departments, but some escalated to state and federal crews.
The fires resulted in $550 million in insured losses and $48 million from just the state in firefighting costs added to much more in local and federal money spent to battle the blazes. In addition, 650 homes and six lives were lost to the fires, Cooke noted.
“We had an unprecedented fire season that could have been worse if we didn’t have the resources available,” Cooke said. “We have to do what we can to prevent another fire season like last year.”
Pamela Dickman can be reached at 669-5050, ext. 526, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @pamela.littlebee.