Fire plays an important role in ecology, helping to rejuvenate disturbance-driven systems and bring diversity to the age and type of plants in the forest. In the last century, however, humans have changed when and where fires happen on the landscape—sometimes starting fires themselves, sometimes preventing fires from spreading.
For the FHI, the indicator for fire risk rates how likely to occur unplanned forest fires are by looking at a combination of factors that create fire-ready conditions, such as air temperature, rain, dryness of the air, and wind.
Near average: Fire risk was near average for this watershed last year. This means that the potential for fires to start is comparable to prior decades.
Our data only look at fire risk from the 1980’s onward, but older records, including biological records like tree rings, suggest that forest fire regimes have changed over the last few centuries. In the early 1900s forest fires were seen as a threat to safety and timber supplies, and fires were prevented and suppressed whenever possible. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, research began to show the ecological of value of fires in preventing a build-up of fuel and in helping create diverse landscapes that allow disturbance-dependent species to establish or regenerate. Intentional burns are now occasionally used as a management tool.
With climate change, temperatures are expected to continue rising in the western US, and many areas are projected to become drier. Although future precipitation patterns for Colorado are uncertain, earlier spring snowmelt, combined with warmer temperatures means that, going forward, fire risk in our state may be higher than it has been in the past. Additionally, fire suppression during the first half of the 20th century has led to a build-up of fuel in many forests. These factors means that today’s fires may be larger, faster spreading, and hotter than many of the fires that shaped this landscape in prior decades. As individuals, we can help prevent fire risk from turning into a wildfire by following fire restrictions in the areas where we work and play and by following restrictions during high-risk years and practicing fire safety at all times.