Experts: Eastern Colorado Wildfires Likely to Start on Private Lands

November 13, 2014

Fires ignited on private lands pose the most significant wildfire threats to populated areas on the eastern-facing range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, according to risk analysts who used extensive evidence regarding a combination of forest and vegetation types, wind and climate conditions to reach their conclusions.

In their paper, “Wildfire Risk Transmission in the Colorado Front Range, USA,” Jessica Haas, David Calkin and Matthew Thompson of the Department of Agriculture’s U. S. Forest Service analyze major contributors of risk to human and economic development associated with wildfires in eastern Colorado counties.

The risk assessment findings are based on an examination of ignition locations on landscapes, the underlying potential for fire to spread, and human population density. They could help prevent and manage future wildfire risks, the experts say.

wildfireThe authors combine new risk tools—like fire spread and burn probability modeling and maps of human development—in concluding that ignitions on privately held lands on the Eastern Rocky Mountains pose elevated wildfire risks.

Wildfires continue to damage property, communities and human life the world over, and some experts predict more extreme weather events, such as drought, will increase the number and severity of wildfires.

The 2007 forest fires in Greece resulted in 84 fatalities; in 2009, bushfires in Victoria, Australia, resulted in 173 fatalities and millions in property damage; and the Fourmile Canyon Fire in 2010 outside Boulder, Colorado, led to the loss of 168 homes and damages totaling $220 million. Approximately 3.65 million people reside in the Colorado Front Range area.

As expected, dry and windy conditions increase the severity of fire spread and damage. The areas with extensive grass and shrub coverage on private lands tend to have higher burn probabilities, although populated Department of Defense lands near Colorado Springs have combinations of forest and vegetation types that increase transmission probabilities, the authors say.

More broadly, the researchers note that identifying fire transmission pathways near populated areas is the key to cost-effective prevention investments on both public and private land.

“By quantitatively producing maps which identify the areas of highest risk transmission, landowners may be more motivated to mitigate the risk from their property if they can visually recognize their lands as a source of wildfire risk,” the authors stated. “Our results highlight areas on the Colorado Front Range, where if an ignition were to occur under severe fire weather, expedited measures should be taken to extinguish the fire before spread occurs, or, if failing that, emergency evacuation and response may be warranted.”

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