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With less moisture, experts worried the 2021 fire season could be as bad as 2020

CAL FIRE: El Dorado Fire sparked by pyrotechnic device used during gender reveal party
Posted at 12:45 PM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 12:45:09-05

Much of the western United States has seen less than 85% of the snow it is used to getting and it is worrying some about the fire season ahead.

“There absolutely is a lot of concern that we could see another record fire season,” said Ben Livneh, a hydrologist and assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. “I think people are still getting their bearings on how exactly we got into this situation and what it means.”

2020 saw one of the worst fire seasons in U.S. history. More than 10.27 million acres burned across the country, the most since accurate records began in 1983, and it happened on the heels of a year that brought good moisture.

This year, that moisture is less. According to data from state agencies that track snowpack, the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California have seen 77% of its normal snowfall, Colorado basins are at 93%, and Utah basins are at 82%.

It means it could be another active year for crews meant to protect all of us—as smoke can drift across the country, causing health concerns in places as far east as Florida. During California’s record-setting fires in September, smoke could be seen in parts of Europe.

“I think there is a lot of concern because you had near normal snow conditions [the winter before last year’s fire season],” said Livneh. “You can think of snow as being really good at infiltrating into the soil and kind of restoring the soil water.”

Schelly Olson remembers fighting those fires in 2020. As assistant fire chief of the Grand County Fire Protection District in Colorado, her crews were tasked with trying to keep the state’s second largest wildfire ever at bay.

“There was just fire everywhere,” she recalled. “It sounded like a freight train.”

Olson has lived in Granby, Colorado, for 16 years. She and her husband built their dream home and raised their two daughters there, but when the fire arrived on October 14, they had to evacuate in a matter of minutes.

The wildfire killed two people, burned 193,000 acres in the county, and destroyed 366 homes.

Olson’s was one of them.

“I don’t wish this upon anyone,” she said. “I’ve seen it all across California for years and years and you really don’t know how devastating it is until you go through it.”

The fire also took the homes of eight other first responders who will once again answer the call of duty to protect homes from similar heartbreak this fire season.

“It looks like a war zone to me. Just burned out,” said Olson. “We need to be at the front of everyone’s minds here in Grand County.”

February, March, and April are the snowiest months for the western U.S. so there is time to catch up, but Livneh says it might take an abnormally large amount of snow to get snowpack levels back to normal.