Douglas County prepares for likely tough wildfire, drought season

Area forecast shows more dry, warm weather in March and April


There may have been snow on the ground just days ago, but Douglas County is gearing up for a difficult wildfire and drought season around the corner.

As the county begins its fifth month in some of the worst possible drought conditions, local officials are encouraging residents to step up their awareness of the situation and consider what they can do to help.

While the entire Denver metro area and much of the state are experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions, almost all of Douglas County was considered to be under the worst possible dryness situation — called “exceptional drought” — from Oct. 20 until Feb. 23, according to the United States Drought Monitor. By the end of February, the county was in the second-worst category, known as “extreme drought,” along with the rest of the metro-area counties.

“All of the experts are really … indicating there is significant potential for drought and wildfire danger,” Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon said. “It would be unwise to look at the forecast in terms of drought and wildfires and not be proactive about it.”

In 2020, the state saw several of its worst wildfires ever due to drought conditions and since then, the dry spell has only worsened, according to the drought monitor. 

In a recent county commissioners' meeting where the board approved contracts for aerial support during wildfires, Tim Johnson, director of Douglas County’s emergency management, spoke about the current conditions.

“The dryness that we experienced all last year, (which) led to … the worst fire season we’ve had in Colorado, that continued on,” said Johnson. “We’re anticipating that this year is going to be a difficult year.”

With forecasts showing a continuation of dry, warm weather in the next few months, county and state officials are promoting drought and wildfire mitigation tactics. Recommended measures include cleaning out gutters, making an emergency exit strategy, minding water restrictions and being careful not to cause a wildfire spark.

“Be aware, know that Colorado is going to be dry this season and take proactive measures to make sure that you’re not part of the problem, (but) part of the solution,” Laydon said.

The importance of mountain snow

One reason that Douglas County had a higher drought rating compared to neighboring counties for several months could be that the area just hasn’t fared as well as others in terms of precipitation events this winter, said Becky Bolinger, the state’s assistant climatologist.

“There is a luck factor,” Bolinger said.

Bolinger doesn’t believe Douglas County is significantly worse off than other nearby areas due to that rating. However, she also doesn’t see the county as in the clear now that it’s been slightly downgraded to “extreme drought.”

“It’s like you’re in a baseball game and you’re losing by eight runs and your player knocks a solo home run,” she said. “It’s exciting, but you’re still down by seven runs.”

Though March and April are typically some of the snowiest months of the year, projections from the National Weather Service are predicting more abnormally dry, warm weather in the region during those months. But even if Douglas County defies this prediction and precipitation in the area comes out at or above average, what happens in the mountains could be even more telling for how the county's water supply will be impacted.

“(The mountains) cannot make up a big snowpack deficit just in March and April … it’s the mountain snow that’s a lot more important for us than our snow that we get here on the Front Range,” Bolinger said.

That’s because mountain runoff is a major contributor to reservoirs in Douglas County. The South Platte River Basin, which feeds into Douglas County, had below-average snowpack as of the end of February, according to the United States Department of Agriculture snow survey.

The county's largest water provider, Centennial Water & Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch, primarily relies on this runoff to serve their more than 100,000 customers.

The water district's average annual demand is 16,500 acre-feet of water storage, according to the district. This year, that capacity is almost 3,000 acre feet below average for this time of year. An acre-foot is one acre of water's surface and one foot of depth.

“Nothing is a guarantee at this point but the odds are a little bit against us right now to have a near-normal snowpack and we need above normal to help with the drought,” Bolinger said.

Centennial Water is working on a drought response plan should the conditions persist or worsen. In the meantime, they're asking customers to be aware of the conditions and be efficient with their water use. Residents can help out by checking for leaks, watering outside during the early morning or late evening and prioritizing drought-tolerant landscaping.

"It's up to each of us to help conserve and use water efficiently," said Sherry Eppers, spokesperson for the district.

Two of the county's other major water providers, Parker Water & Sanitation District and Castle Rock Water, mostly utilize wells or groundwater for their supply. Still, both districts either have or are also developing plans in case their supplies are depleted.

On a statewide level, drought impacts haven’t been this bad since 2012, Bolinger said. The worst season before that was in 2002.

“(Exceptional) drought conditions … are expected to only occur in an area once in every 50 to once out of every 100 years,” Bolinger said. “We’ve had three in 20 years.”

If the drought continues as expected, the county, along with much of the state, could be in for water restrictions and more wildfires during the warm months, she said.

“One of the biggest concerns I would have for this summer is a very high risk for wildfires that could get large or could impact areas where it would be costly and devastating,” Bolinger said. “For the less densely populated areas of Douglas County, I would say that is a pretty big risk factor.”

'Man-made problems'

There are several mitigation tactics that can be taken to prepare for wildfire and drought season. On the governmental level, Douglas County commissioners have secured their annual contracts for air support during wildfires, including two 45-day stints during peak fire season where a helicopter is parked in the area. These contracts are unique to Douglas County, Johnson said.

Commissioners are also hoping to converse with Sen. Michael Bennet about his bill The Outdoor Restoration Force Act, which would, in part, provide funding for fire mitigation.

Johnson and his team meet with local firefighting agencies once a month and host wildfire evacuation drills for residents of high-risk areas.

In Douglas County, where wildfires are the top natural hazard above snow storms and tornadoes, residents can also play a role in helping the season run as smoothly as possible, Johnson said.

“They can play a huge role on an individual basis,” Johnson said. “If everyone in the community is doing at least their part to mitigate their property, that helps us tremendously.”

Potentially high-risk areas that Johnson and his team keep a close eye on include Castle Pines, Roxborough Park, Perry Park, Woodmoor Mountain, Russellville, other forested areas and even Highlands Ranch. Two of the county’s largest fires in the past decade have been in the Highlands Ranch backcountry.

“If I were a Douglas County resident and I was in a heavily forested area, I would be sure that I was ready,” she said. “If I lived in a more suburban area … I would be more concerned about how I’m watering and making sure I’m watering in a way that’s not wasteful.”

Residents can also help stop wildfires from spreading by calling 911 if they see or smell smoke.

It’s also important to be mindful about anything that could cause a spark, including cigarette butts, campfires and machinery such as lawn mowers and cars.

“A lot of times … these are man-made problems that occur,” Laydon said. “So when the public is aware of how they can also help keep their neighborhoods, their homes, their areas safe, that really helps us.”


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