Red-flag fire warnings and government’s high-tech fix

FRISCO — Last year’s drop in wildfire activity in Colorado and the West shouldn’t lull anyone into thinking that danger has passed. It’s only a question of when – not if ­– large fires will return, as this week’s red-flag fire warnings in parts of southeastern Colorado show. When wildfires do return, they will threaten thousands of homes along the Front Range and across the West.

Climate change is one of the main reasons for the massive increase in wildfires during the past decade, according to state and federal forest scientists and land managers.

Last week, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell approached Congress. He listed climate change as one of the top three threats in what he called “some of the greatest ecological challenges in our history. Invasive species, climate change effects, regional drought.” Three years in a row, he has spelled out the facts.

With his Forest Service scientists warning of dangerous global-warming decades ahead, Tidwell said adding fast air tankers will help the agency catch wildfires before they threaten towns, roads, reservoirs or power lines.

This year, the Forest Service inherited an air tanker from the Coast Guard. Tankers are used in dangerous low-level flights to drop thousands of gallons of fire retardant.

A second super-fast water-scooping plane may also be in the works for the Forest Service. The water-scooper can reload without landing, so if there’s a big enough lake or reservoir nearby, it can drop loads of water onto hot spots.

NASA, the Forest Service and private companies have joined forces to use satellites to gain ground on the growing wildfire threat. These tools quickly scan wide areas, peer down through thick wildfire smoke, find new ignition zones or help guide firefighters to safety. The satellites also predict weather and wildfire forecasts. One new instrument aboard a private satellite operated by Longmont-based DigitalGlobe detects leaf moisture, a new capability that will help fire-forecasters decide where to place equipment or which fires require aerial attack.

Not all fire prevention is high-tech. The Forest Service also trims back dead forests and helps clear brush from around homes in fire-prone zones.

The Colorado red zone

Colorado’s fire-prevention strategy is like the federal government’s — find and fight blazes before they’re big.

Two speedy new spotter planes based in Centennial will scan for lightning-sparked fires after summer thunderstorms. The state added the new planes after a state wildfire report came out in late 2013, after a record-breaking string of fires between 2002 and 2013 resulted in a shakeup of state wildfire policy.

The group that wrote the report, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Task Force on Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health, tried to grapple with how to protect homes across millions of acres of flammable forests.

All of Colorado’s largest wildfires on record happened between 2002, the year of the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire, and culminated in 2013 with the Black Forest Fire, which burned more than 500 homes and has been deemed the costliest in property losses.

Doing their work with some urgency just months after the Black Forest Fire, Hickenloooper’s Task Force suggested several measures that would have tackled the wildfire problem where it counts most — on the ground, where new homes are being built.

But the report’s recommendations never resulted in any meaningful regulatory measures. Absent new rules on building and development in fire-prone areas, state and federal firefighters will focus on trying to find and extinguish wildfires early, before they pose a significant threat to towns, watersheds, power lines or roads.