Colorado winter wildfires: a cautionary tale for drought states

A Louisville firefighter pulls a hose through the smoke and haze as homes burn. Photo: Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

Nearly a thousand homes and buildings were destroyed between Christmas and the new year during the Marshall fire in Boulder County, Colorado, reported the Boulder County sheriff’s department. The fire started from an unknown cause on Thursday, Dec 30. 

Historically, dry conditions due to droughts, accompanied by high speed winds, led to a quick and dangerous spread of the wildfire in the Boulder, Lewisville and Superior areas. Damage assessments by the Sheriff’s office reported the fire spread across 6,000 acres, destroying 991 structures, and damaging 127 more. As of Jan 1, three people were reported missing and presumed dead, according to the Colorado Sun

Overnight, a snowstorm of nearly 10 inches covered Boulder County, halting the fire and allowing most evacuees to return to their homes. Some areas, shared County Sheriff, Joe Pelle, are still too dangerous for people to enter. Cadaver dogs will be used to search for those who are missing as of Jan 1.  

The fire is no longer burning, but there are remaining difficulties even for those whose homes were not destroyed. Xcell Energy, the power company servicing the affected areas, reported approximately 7,500 customers were without electricity on the morning of New Year’s Day. Many homes are left without heat which is a growing concern for residents given temperatures on Saturday night will hit a low of five degrees Fahrenheit. 

Although these fires took place in our neighbor state of Colorado, the climate of the area is similar to that of Utah county. The National Integrated Drought Information System stated that 2021 brought the “most intense period of drought” since the start of the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) in the year 2000. Even in the winter months, the USDM reports that Utah County is under a severe drought. Given these conditions, Utah is not exempt from the threat a wildfire could pose to the area, even in the winter. 

Currently, UtahFireInfo.gov states risk of wildfire is low as most of Utah’s mountain ranges and valleys are covered in snow. However, reporting by Deseret News claims local climate scientists and other experts have concluded that it will take several “good winters” to take the state out of a drought and into the clear from the risk of winter fires. 

Residents of Utah can do their part by staying mindful of local resources that aid in wildfire protection and prevention. A list of wildfire prevention resources are located at UtahFireInfo.gov.

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