Halfway through the summer, at least 1,585 wildfires have torched more than 431,600 acres of Colorado forest and grasslands and destroyed or damaged about 450 homes, making 2018 one of the most destructive fire seasons in history — and it isn’t over yet.
The only larger wildfire season in Colorado in terms of acres burned was in 2002, when 926,502 acres were destroyed, according to statistics kept by the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center in Lakewood.
“It’s a pretty intense year,” RMCC spokesman Larry Helmerick said. “The acres consumed is real high this year, almost as much as a whole year for a lot of years … and it’s not over by a long shot.”
Helmerick said that relatively speaking, 2018 hasn’t had as many wildfires as some past years in Colorado. For example, there were 4,600 wildfires in Colorado in 2002.
What separates 2018 from past years has been the size of the wildfires, Helmerick said.
Traditionally, most wildfires are very small — less than an acre — and are extinguished before they become the behemoths that require coordinated fire suppression from local, state and federal agencies. But five of the 20 largest wildfires in Colorado history have been recorded in 2018. Experts blame extreme drought conditions similar to those in 2002.
The cost of fighting the fires has already reached nearly $145 million as of Wednesday, in a year in which the U.S. Forest Service has had to carefully allocate firefighting resources because of the sheer volume of fires burning across the country, Helmerick said. Currently the forest service is tracking 98 large fires in the West.
In terms of property, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history was the June 2013 Black Forest fire. Home and car owners filed 4,173 claims totaling $421 million, according to the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. El Paso County reported that 486 structures burned in the blaze.
It’s too early for tallies of house and vehicle costs of wildfires in 2018, said Carole Walker, executive director of RMIIA.
“This has been a devastating year for insurance companies,” said Walker, referring to the combination of wildfires and damaging hailstorms. She added that Colorado is undergoing a string of bad years related to extreme wildfire conditions and hailstorms.
“These have been record-breaking years, year after year,” she said.
For insurance companies, location is everything when it comes to wildfires. This year, the Spring Creek fire — the second-largest wildfire in Colorado history at more than 108,000 acres — rolled through subdivisions in Costilla and Huerfano counties; and the Lake Christine fire in Eagle County torched three homes, including a million-dollar mansion.
“It’s all about where these fires occur,” Walker said. “There have been some expensive homes in the mix. Unfortunately, (Colorado) is ranked third in the country for homes in wildfire risk areas.”
So far in 2018, more than 300 homes across the state have been gutted by fire and another 145 have been damaged, according to Micki Trost, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
“It’s one of our biggest fire seasons ever,” Trost said. The state is considering seeking federal aide, but so far hasn’t because most of the homes were insured, she said. Federal aid is reserved for homes that are uninsured or underinsured, she said.
“We’ve asked for an extension to ask for assistance,” Trost said.
“It’s definitely the busiest year since I’ve been here,” said Brian Achziger, state fire management officer for the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management.
One positive statistic in 2018 is that no civilians or hot-shot firefighters have been killed.
Eight firefighters were killed in three wildfires in 2002. Five of them died fighting the Hayman fire alone. Six people were killed in 2012 including three civilians in the Lower North Fork fire near Foxton.
One thing that may be saving firefighter lives has been a shift to indirect tactics. Instead of challenging fast-moving fires right up to the flames, firefighters are more often establishing defensive positions well behind fire lines and waiting for the wildfires to come to them.
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