Short snow season a bad fire omen

This being the centennial of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, it’s fitting to recall his observation that this is the cruelest month. April is most pregnant with hope, after all, as winter’s ravages are pushed back by warmer air and reemerging life–only to come roaring back on a resurgent cold front, arctic blasts shriveling buds and hope alike, anticipation turning bitter with a disappointment that will not fade until May.

If you live along Colorado’s Front Range, however, you should be careful for what you wish. Here we are, almost midway through April, and the last snow accumulation–defined as an inch or more–seen in Denver was on March 17. Although one definition of “reckless” is to predict mountain weather, let’s go out on a limb by observing that there is no more than a trace of snow in the city’s weather forecasts for the next couple of weeks, raising the possibility that March 17 may become Denver’s earliest final snow in 135 years.

That isn’t just a historical oddity. It also means the city would have received about 10 inches below its normal snowfall for the year, a 17% shortfall from the average. And while Denver is not representative of the Front Range overall–areas to the west and north would usually have had more snow–it is a worrisome indicator. Less snowfall means less recharge of groundwater, less snowmelt to replenish the Colorado River, and drier vegetation overall, raising brush- and forest-fire risks.

All that must be viewed as a backdrop to two other, interrelated developments: Colorado’s mountain population is steadily increasing, even as the supply of firefighters and other emergency responders has been squeezed by escalating real estate prices. As a result, according to a troubling article by Jason Blevins in the Colorado Sun, fire chiefs in 15 resort-region fire protection districts reported record-setting call volumes last year and thus far into 2022, even as “spiking costs of living and housing prices make it difficult to hire and retain firefighters and recruit volunteers.”

The lack of adequate, affordable housing in or near resort communities, national parks and other areas favored by RVers and other vacationers is usually most noticeable in the hospitality industry, with food and accommodations providers coming up short on waiters, clerks, housekeepers and other workers. Less readily visible, however, is the effect of those shortages on emergency workers–until, of course, there’s an emergency. That’s when manpower shortages become critical, instead of merely inconvenient, and when response times grow excessively long because of the increased dispersal of first responders. As one fire chief told the Sun, “a small fire that typically could have been contained in a couple hours now takes all day.”

Colorado’s mountain population is growing–and getting greyer–in part because more people are occupying their vacation homes for longer periods of time. The availability of rental housing for long-term residents, meanwhile, has been curtailed as more of it converts to short-term rentals, which is more profitable for the owners but which means more population turnover, more traffic and more congestion, further slowing emergency response times. The population shift also means that demand for services, once tilted toward the weekends–when volunteers are generally more available–is now equally high midweek, putting additional strain on emergency services.

“We used to have folks on the sidelines always ready to play, but we are not seeing that anymore,” Telluride’s Fire Chief John Bennett told the Sun. “It’s the cost of living. It’s the availability of affordable housing. People are living further away from the community they work in, and that’s pretty consistent across all mountain communities.” Brad White, at the Grand Fire Protection District, added that his team’s average time commitment for a call is now 63 minutes, or almost double what it was just eight years ago.

None of that augurs well for a summer that is shaping up to be even more parched than last year, which culminated in a fire north of Denver that consumed approximately a thousand homes. That conflagration came at the end of December, once considered well outside a traditional “fire season” that ended by October–and possibly a reason to rethink Eliot’s conclusion about which month is the cruelest.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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