Fire Years, Not Fire Seasons

Recent headlines have touted how well parts of Colorado are faring in terms of snow and rainfall, and the latest round of gray skies and drizzle have provided additional reasons for optimism. While the past few weeks have been encouraging, there likely has not been enough precipitation to prevent another summer of heat-related challenges.

As Colorado enters its 20th year of drought, longer fire seasons and increasingly warm temperatures are top of mind for state and local governments as they engage in a delicate balancing act of trying to mitigate the impacts of climate change while adapting to a warmer and drier Colorado.

The state is expecting a continuation of hot and dry conditions this year – resulting in predictions of higher-than-normal potential for large fires.

Both wildfire and drought are natural in our state, but rising temperatures are driving natural events to extreme levels. These climate-related impacts negatively affect the environment and human health, especially for sensitive populations such as older adults, young children, and low-income communities. CHI has highlighted the connection between climate change and health in two reports: Colorado’s Climate and Colorado’s Health and Global Issue, Local Risk.

Colorado’s New Normal: What to Expect in 2021


Colorado used to have two distinct fire seasons. The first was from late May to early July and the second was from late August through September. But recently, those seasons have been extended to a full calendar year, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Yearly wildfire predictions rely on historical trends – and those trends signal an above average fire year in 2021. The core fire season is now an average of 78 days longer than it was in the 1970s, and since the 1990s, fires have become larger and more intense. Additionally, 20 of the worst wildfires in Colorado history have occurred since 2000, and the three largest occurred just last year (see Figure 1).

These large fires can bring destruction to communities and can also produce harmful smoke that irritates people’s chests, lungs, and hearts.

Wildfire Policies

Both Republican and Democratic policymakers recognize that destructive wildfires are becoming more common in Colorado and the Western U.S., but there is less agreement about how to curb these fires and protect communities.

Despite political divisions, Colorado’s current legislative session has produced bipartisan measures to combat and quickly suppress upcoming wildfires with the passage of SB21-113, which invests money from the state’s General Fund into Firehawk helicopters. Bipartisan support also led to SB21-049 being signed into law. The bill provides more funding to the Department of Public Safety, which houses the Fire Prevention and Control Division.

In Congress, Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse have been pushing for increased wildfire prevention and restoration efforts federally with the introduction of the Outdoor Restoration Force Act and the 21st Century Conservation Corps proposal.

However, one of the best tools for preventing wildfires – prescribed or controlled burns – cannot be conducted by the Colorado State Forest Service due to a burn suspension dating back to 2012, hindering Colorado’s ability to manage large wildfires before they start. Meanwhile, in another fire-prone state, California, legislators are trying to pass a bill to expand prescribed burning. Planning for smaller, controlled fires reduces the volume of flammable vegetation that can fuel large, fast-moving fires that destroy communities and create plumes of smoke that affect people’s health for hundreds of miles.


Colorado’s climate has become warmer and drier in the past 30 years, according to newly released data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These trends have contributed to the multi-decade long drought that is projected to continue around the state.

Several late spring snowstorms improved drought conditions along the Front Range and in Northern Colorado, but the Western Slope and southwest regions have remained very dry. With about 43% of Colorado’s land mass in at least a “severe” level of drought (worse conditions are “extreme” and “exceptional”), there is an increased risk of water shortages this summer and fall, which can affect both urban and rural areas as farmers head into one of the driest planting seasons in decades.

About 25% of Coloradans live in areas currently rated as having drought conditions that are severe or worse (see Figure 2). Living in drought-stricken regions increases the potential for fire danger and dust storms that can drive people indoors and disrupt local economies by damaging agricultural lands, recreational areas, and buildings.


Drought Policies

While periodic drought is a natural occurrence in Colorado, severe conditions are influenced by the state’s warming average temperatures, which have increased as much as 1 degree F in parts of the state over the past 30 years. That may not seem like a lot, but it has been enough to drastically alter the climate and further dry out Colorado’s already arid landscape.

Greenhouse gas emissions contribute to much of the warming, yet efforts to reduce emissions are politically polarizing and therefore difficult to enact. Some bills, such as SB21-200, are even causing intra-party divisions. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, has vowed to veto the Democrat-backed climate bill because it would give regulatory power to an unelected board, the Air Quality Control Commission.

Since former Gov. Bill Ritter’s 2007 Climate Action Plan, there has been some progress in addressing Colorado’s greenhouse gas emission levels. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s new Climate Change Unit was created in December 2019 to develop a greenhouse gas inventory, and the state released its Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap in 2021 with goals to lower emissions 26% by 2025 and 90% by 2050 compared to 2005 levels.

Mitigation efforts are running parallel with adaptation practices as much of the state remains dry. Polis declared a drought emergency in November 2020, moving Colorado into the final phase of the state's drought response plan.

Colorado’s dry forecast also emphasizes a need for policy makers to elevate the importance of water use in discussions about sustainability and urban planning, as the state’s growing population will continue to strain an already limited water supply.


The last embers of the Cameron Peak Fire, the worst wildfire in Colorado’s history, were stamped out on December 2, 2020 – less than six months ago. As uneven precipitation patterns continue across the state and warmer temperatures enter the forecast, it can feel daunting as Colorado prepares for what could be another bad fire season with persistent drought conditions. As our understanding of the factors that impact human health continues to evolve, health experts and policy groups know that these threats are interconnected with Coloradans’ well-being – physical, mental, and even financial.

State and local policymakers are limited in how much they can influence these environmental challenges, but they have plans and innovative tools in place in the event that fire seasons live up to their increasingly concerning predictions. Even with bold policy action, the need for this level of preparedness will be the new normal each spring.

Related Blogs and Research