Average wildfire season likely ahead for Colorado, but coronavirus will mean less firefighting resources

Colorado’s fire seasons have become longer, more intense and more destructive over the past three decades. Now, Colorado’s fire officials have to figure out how to fight blazes during a pandemic that will likely mean fewer firefighters are available.

Colorado fire experts expect an average 2020 season thanks to above average snowfall, according to the 2020 Wildfire Preparedness Plan released Friday by the state’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control. But that means firefighters will fight more than 4,400 fires that will burn an average of 168,401 total acres with less flexibility and fewer resources than usual due to the coronavirus.

“Don’t let average lull you to sleep,” Vaughn Jones, the division’s chief of the wildland fire management, said.

Local firefighting agencies — the first line of attack — will be short-staffed due to the virus or have more work than usual, the plan states. Some firefighters may not be able to leave their home districts due to travel restrictions.

The virus also means changes to the normal way fire crews work. During the fire season, firefighters jam into trucks or planes and travel across the country to where they are needed most. Once there, they camp in close quarters far from hospitals.

“Large fire Incident Command Posts and camps create an environment conducive to the transmission of infectious disease: high-density living and working conditions, reduced access to hygiene products and equipment, and a mobile workforce from various locations,” according to the report. “Environmental and occupational hazards such as smoke, heat, fatigue and physically demanding work can compound this situation.”

State fire officials are looking at new ways to manage fire camps by altering how crews sleep, eat and bathe, Jones said.

The state also won’t be able to utilize the hand crews staffed by Colorado Department of Corrections inmates for the forseeable future due to the coronavirus. The crew members are not allowed to leave the prisons where they’re living due to the virus, the report states.

The state plans to mitigate the risks connected to COVID-19 by deploying extra resources dedicated to identifying and extinguishing fires as quickly as possible to keep them from growing.

“The smaller the fire, the less impact to homes and communities,” Jones said. “But it has the additional benefit of not having to go to large fire camps and having firefighters travel from across the country.”

To do that, the Division of Fire Prevention and Control may need an additional $8.4 million to pay for more resources, like additional planes and helicopters that will be on standby for firefighting.

Fire officials will work with the governor’s office over the next few weeks to decide which of the items on that wish list are priorities, Jones said. Instead of asking for all $8.4 million up front, they’ll request extra money as needed during the fire season.

Jones asked Coloradans to be especially careful when burning or lighting campfires this year. The National Forest Service already banned fires across the Rocky Mountain region and some local jurisdictions, such as Boulder County, enacted fire restriction to conserve emergency resources.

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