Peak Colorado wildfire season will start earlier and last longer, predict forecasters

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A single-engine plane drops fire retardant around the NCAR fire burning near Boulder’s Table Mesa neighborhood. March 26, 2022.

The extreme fire conditions gripping Colorado won’t disappear over the next few months, according to an annual wildfire outlook released by state officials Friday.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control warns that high temperatures and dry weather will likely persist into the summer, priming forests and grasslands for blazes. Projections suggest the peak of the fire season will start in mid-May, weeks earlier than usual, with extreme drought conditions expected to last into July. 

Those conditions will leave every part of Colorado vulnerable to wildfires at some point during the next three months, but not all areas will face the same degree of danger at the same time. 

State fire officials expect southern Colorado to face the greatest risk in May, but conditions for large wildfires will then extend across the state. Monsoon rains could bring some relief to the Western Slope in July, but forecasters predict wildfire weather will persist in the Front Range and Eastern Plains later into the summer. 

At a press conference Friday, Mike Morgan, the director of the state fire agency, said the volatile factors will make it nearly impossible to set prescribed burns to reduce flammable fuels. With fewer opportunities for "good fires," Morgan said the state plans to smother blazes before they burn homes and ecosystems. 

"Our strategy for unwanted fire is fairly simple," Morgan said. "It is early detection and aggressive initial attack."

The success of the strategy depends on an expanded fleet of firefighting aircraft. At an earlier press event, Gov. Jared Polis announced the state had secured a contract for a second large air tanker and two large, fast-flying Type 1 helicopters to assist with summer firefighting efforts.

The additional aircraft means Colorado has 11 tankers, helicopters and airplanes available to detect and smother wildfires throughout the summer.

“The reason it’s so critical to reserve these capabilities is we are competing with other states to extend these contracts,” Polis said. “We want to make sure Colorado is ready.” 

The announcements came just after the National Weather Service dispatched a rare warning of "extremely critical" fire weather for eastern Colorado and New Mexico, leaving many residents scanning the horizon for any sign of smoke. Meteorologists noted such extreme conditions had only appeared in the region two or three times since 2006.

The springtime wildfire warnings were also the latest reminder Colorado no longer has a defined summer fire season. In late December, the Marshall fire became the most destructive fire in state history, burning more than 1,100 homes in Boulder County. In 2020, the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires became the first and second-largest ever recorded by burning late into the fall.