Will 2012 be the summer when Colorado finally burns to the ground?

I suspect very few of us Coloradans will ever forget the day, a few years back, when our nitwit former governor posed before the cameras and pronounced that “today, the entire state of Colorado is on fire.” As I explained to friends, no, he didn’t actually say “please take your tourism dollars to Utah,” but he may as well have.

Some new data, though, has me wondering how bad the 2012 forest fire situation might get. Our friend Tom Yulsman, who co-directs the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, passed along this chart, which frankly is a little terrifying.

Note that dark blue line at the bottom. The short version is this: the snowpack was low all winter and, in Tom’s words, has now “fallen off a cliff. The astonishingly early and precipitous drop may herald a wildfire-filled summer ahead.” (Click here for a more detailed analysis of the situation by Professor Yulsman.)

I say “terrifying” for several reasons. First, much of Colorado is basically high desert. I don’t know that most people think of us in those terms, but we rank 44th in the nation in average precipitation per year, ahead only of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming. For that reason, wildfires are always a concern.

Second, those who have spent some time in the state – for instance, driving along the I-70 corridor from Denver to ski country – have noticed the massive tree kills caused by the pine beetle.

The mountain pine beetle has killed 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pine in Colorado alone since 1996, and in 2007 the beetles killed an estimated 3.9 million acres of lodgepole pine across the Rocky Mountain region. The extent of beetle kill has raised concerns that the risk of catastrophic fires is spreading along with the outbreak.

By all means, take a moment or two to review that little brief. There are plenty of variables in play, but I think the conclusion that a lot of us are drawing focus on the combination of “millions of acres of dead trees” and “extreme drought.” A couple summers ago I was up in the high country and even then was thinking sweet hell, all it would take is a typical little dry spell, followed by one ill-placed lightning strike and the ensuing Coloradopocalypse would have them choking on the smoke in Philadelphia. I hope not, but that was the fear then. Tom’s snowpack chart today does nothing to soothe my concerns.

So yeah, I’m a little worried. And hoping for a rainy spring.


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