Colorado’s Early Start to Wildfire Season Hits its National Forests Hard

san juan national forest fire
HERMOSA, CO - JUNE 12: The sun is obscured by the large plume of the 416 fire as it continues to burn in the San Juan National Forest on June 12, 2018 in Hermosa, Colorado. The fire, burning 23 miles northwest of Durango, started June 1. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images) Helen H. Richardson / Contributor/ Getty Images

As of June 14, 2018, at least six significant wildfires were burning in Colorado, a troublingly early start to the state’s fire season. The biggest blaze, known as the 416 Fire, has been raging for two weeks, destroying more than 32,000 acres of Colorado’s southwest near the town of Durango, and forcing thousands of households into evacuation. The 416, along with another fire called the Burro Fire, is burning in the San Juan National Forest, an area larger than the state of Delaware that’s experiencing severe drought. It’s only 18 percent contained.

In response, the U.S Forest Service closed all 1.8 million acres of the San Juan National Forest to “protect natural resources and public safety.” San Juan National Forest encompasses the ski resort town of Telluride, several historic mining and rail towns, multiple hot springs, a world-famous ice climbing park, a comprehensive system of backcountry huts, and arguably some of the greatest hiking, trail-running, and mountain-biking trails in the state, including a significant portion of the Colorado Trail. Cam Hooley, the San Juan National Forest’s public information officer, confirms it’s the first time in history that this national forest has completely closed.

Officials hope that closing the San Juan National Forest will prevent adding human-caused ignitions—from poorly maintained campfires and other accidental sparks that come from, say, vehicles and power tools—to what’s already an emergency fire-management situation. A crew of more than 1,200 professionals from all over the United States, including several elite Hotshots teams and eight helicopters, are currently battling the massive fires in the San Juans. “At this point, even the tiniest new fire that starts is going to complicate their efforts to deal with these big fires,” says Michael Kodas, associate director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and the author of Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame.

The closure will remain in effect until the area receives sufficient moisture to improve the highly-flammable conditions. Until then, anyone found in the San Juan National Forest will be sentenced to six months in jail or a $5,000 fine, or both. As inconvenient and disappointing as the closure may be, to both locals and tourists, it’s better than the alternative, which became a scary reality in another Colorado national forest on the morning of June 12. In the White River National Forest, a fire thought to be human-caused flared up on Buffalo Mountain just two miles outside the town of Silverthorne. Unseasonably hot, dry temperatures and winds gusting up to 20 mph quickly spread the flames across 100 acres.

The 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest is less remote and more densely populated than the San Juan, with 11 ski resorts including Aspen, Vail, and Breckenridge. In Silverthorne, 1,300 households were forced to evacuate, with 1,000 more on pre-evacuation notice. At the time of this writing, the perimeter threatening the homes had been secured, but the fire overall was only about 45 percent contained.

The White River National Forest has since enacted a Stage 1 Fire Restriction, which prohibits any fire in the national forest, except for a campfire inside of an established fire ring at an established campground. Closing the White River National Forest would be a Stage 3 Fire Restriction, and conditions aren’t severe enough to warrant that. At least not yet.

“The research coming out of Earth Lab at CU Boulder shows that 84 percent of wildfires in the United States over a 20-year period were started by humans, in one way or another,” says Kodas. He also cites Forest Service scientists’ predictions that by the year 2050, in a bad fire year, the United States will see 20 million acres of land go up in flames. As a point of reference, in 2017, the worst fire season on record, about 10 million acres burned.