Like much of the West, Northwest Colorado saw one its most epic and most expensive wildfire seasons to date in 2018. The region is accustomed to dealing with lots of fires, but this year’s extreme heat and drought resulted in more volatile fires that consumed vastly larger numbers of acres than in years past.
“It was the busiest year we’ve had in the last 10 years, by far,” said Colt Mortenson, fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management’s northwest region. “Usually, you get a fire, you get a rest, and then another comes up. It pulses. But this year, it didn’t pulse. It began about the 20th of June and lasted straight through until October.”
A total of 229 fires charred more than 108,000 acres across Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt, Jackson, and Grand counties, according to Mortenson, including some acreage burned across the border into neighboring Wyoming and Utah. That is nearly twice the acres that burned last year and more than any fire season in the past 20 years. In Moffat County, alone, more than 23,000 acres burned, most of them in the 19,955-acre Divide Fire north of Craig.
The fires strapped both local and national resources, destroyed grazing lands and sage grouse habitat, and cost local, state, and national agencies lots of money.
“Without question, this will be the most expensive wildland fire season Moffat County has experienced,” said Sheriff KC Hume.
Hume estimates that fires like the 4,100-acre Bender Mountain Fire, which burned from Utah into Colorado in September, and the 8,610-acre Boone Draw Fire cost several millions of dollars each.
Some fires are more expensive than others though, noted Mortenson.
“When you have fires burning in forest, like the Ryan Fire and Silver Creek Fire, (which) burned for up to 100 days … those are really, really expensive fires,” he said. “I’d say we easily spent over $30 million with the Ryan Fire and Silver Creek Fire,” which burned 28,585 acres and 20,120 acres, respectively, in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.
Firefighting costs are complex and split across multiple levels of government depending on whether a fire burned on private, state, or federal land. The Moffat County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for fighting fire on private and state land and shares that load with Craig Fire/Rescue, which is responsible for a 180-square-mile district.
Moffat County Road & Bridge provided nearly 2,500 man-hours of firefighting support on 13 fires this summer, of which about 840 hours were overtime.
“We’re at 108-percent of our overtime for the year,” said Ken Moncrief, motor grader supervisor for Road & Bridge. “Typically, our overtime would go for snowplowing … but the fire season is pretty much the culprit for eating up our overtime budgets. It hit us a little harder this year than it has in the past.”
The county often sends motor graders and dozers to help dig firelines and provides water tenders, when needed. Some of those hours may be reimbursed by state or federal agencies, but a significant portion will remain the county’s responsibility.
The Craig-Moffat County Airport also played a key role in firefighting efforts this summer with the addition of two new helipads for firefighting helicopters, as well as functioning as a base for single engine air tankers, or SEAT.
“Out of the Craig SEAT base, we flew over 400,000 gallons of water, thermal gel, and retardant, which is a record amount at least for the last 20 years,” Mortenson said.
The reason behind so many record-breaking numbers in this year’s fire season is a weather year that also broke records. Most of Moffat County experienced the hottest year on record for the 2018 water year, according to a report from the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, as did most of Northwest Colorado and the Western Slope. Conditions were also extremely dry, with a slice of western Moffat County claiming its driest year on record.
“Now, a lot of people are talking about how our fire season has gone from 100 days to 150 days. It’s getting warmer and seems to be getting drier,” Mortenson said. “The number of fires we’ve had in the last 20 years has increased, and the severity of the fires has increased.”
Lightning is usually prolific across Moffat County in summer, with as many as 8,000 lightning strikes in a single night in years past, Mortenson said. While lightning strikes were fewer than normal this year, they started even more fires, because they were met with extremely dry vegetation on the ground, he added.
“Usually, we spot a fire or get a report and have time to get an engine out there, but within 20 minutes, it was off and going,” he said. “This year, they just moved on us.”
The majority of fires in 2018 were lightning-caused, but nearly a third were human-caused, according to statistics from the Craig Interagency Dispatch Center.
Two homes were destroyed in the Divide Fire, and it left its mark upon residents and ranchers in other ways, as well. Miles upon miles of agricultural fencing burned, as did grazing land. Cattle rancher Wes McStay was one of several ranchers who felt the sting; about 1,800 of his own acres burned in the Divide Fire, as well as 500 acres of permitted BLM grazing lands and at least eight miles of fencing.
“It’s $10,000 to $12,000 a mile to replace it. It hurts,” McStay said, noting that it was a tough summer all-around for him and his neighbors due to drought. McStay has also had to resort to buying expensive feed and hay to make up for the losses. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it, the hottest and driest I’ve ever seen it. Everybody struggled, not just us.”
McStay also lamented wildfire’s impact on sage grouse. The Divide Fire consumed some of Moffat County’s prime sage grouse habitat, including a field on McStay’s property that was home to the state’s largest sage grouse lek, or mating ground.
“I’ve been working on this sage grouse thing for the last 20 years, and much of what I’ve done just went up in smoke. It’s disappointing,” McStay said.
A total of 38,100 acres of sage grouse habitat burned in Northwest Colorado this year, most of it priority habitat, accounting for more than a third of the acreage that burned in the region.
“The challenge with sage grouse habitat is that invasive annual grasses can replace the sagebrush,” said BLM spokesperson David Boyd in an email. “Also in areas where habitat is limited, there may not be many areas for birds displaced from a large fire to go.”
There were no major closures to hunters in the area due to fire this year, said Bill DeVergie, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks & Wildlife, based in Meeker. He did express some concern, however, for how big game populations will fare this winter.
“A couple of the big fires were further west on the winter range, so there will probably be less forage available,” DeVergie said. “It depends on what kind of winter and how much snow we get, but it could make it difficult for them to find food.”
Nonetheless, the ecological costs of fire are often eventually outweighed by the benefits, when new growth in the landscape emerges in the years to come. Meanwhile, the exact dollar costs of the 2018 fire season won’t be known until next spring, when the state completes a complex set of calculations and sends out bills to the different agencies responsible, including the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office.
“We had more wildland fire than we’ve ever had, and we spent more money than we ever have,” Hume said of 2018. But, “we have an extremely robust wildland fire suppression group. … I honestly believe that we do wildland fire better than many areas because of the relationships that we have here.”
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