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A look at Colorado's wildfire risk in 2021 and beyond

A wildfire outlook for 2021 requires more than just looking at what happened in 2020.

DENVER — The greenery following on the Front Range following a wet spring could give Coloradans false hope about the upcoming fire season.

There's potential for this year to seem like last year, experts say. Though a wildfire outlook for 2021 requires more than just looking at what happened in Colorado in 2020. It requires a study of the last several decades to understand what's coming our way in the future.

Here's is part of our conversation with meteorologist Jeff Weber with the National Center for Atmospheric Research. 

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Climate patterns

Weber said there's been a general trend of hotter summer months and drier than normal weather patterns.

He uses comparisons from over the last 30 years to understand the trends. 

"And there's a megadrought for the last 20 years," said Weber.

Additionally, he said a persistent ridge over the western part of the United States continues to dry and warm this part of the country. 

What is the outlook for this year?

"I would say this year's fire season could be similar to our fire season last year," said Weber. 

There are many factors to consider here, the rain we had. There is vegetation, and therefore, more fuel that could dry out and catch fire. 

"Some fires are caused by humans," said Weber. "If people are more cautious that might help us. The conditions are ripe and the fuel is there."

South Metro Fire and Rescue said while it's been a slower start, they are anticipating things could pick up quickly and have started responding to smaller wildfires at least once or twice weekly lately. 

"This year because of rain we are having longer taller annual grasses," said Kim Spuhler, a Risk Reduction Specialists with South Metro, "We didn't have that year prior." 

What about ecosystem changes?

"We are looking at changes in how ecosystem may develop over the next decade," said Weber. "We may see fewer pines and [they will be] replaced more by Aspen and bushes and shrubs." 

Weber said that's because Aspens tend to grow more quickly in open spaces, like after a fire goes through a forest, and pines tend to regrow down the line. 

"The forest can't adapt quickly to those changes, so they are ripe to burn," said Weber referencing the drier and warmer climate. 

He also mentioned pine beetle have damaged many trees, including along the I-70 corridor and Berthoud Pass, making them susceptible to fires, as well. 

"Next 20 years will look different in Colorado," he said.

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The ask from South Metro

Both fire experts we spoke to are asking people to be fire-smart when out enjoying Colorado.

"We are preparing for a very intense wildfire season," said Spuhler. "Never know -- Colorado weather is very dynamic." 

While the fire department is training and preparing for wildfires, they are also asking people to go on the defensive and make sure their properties are protected. 

"I actually think guards are down right now," said Spuhler. "With the rain, and green grass, people think, 'Oh, I'm fine. It will be great this year.' Colorado can change on a dime." 

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