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Colorado’s devastation shows how wildfires, winter and drought can co-exist in the West

Could midwinter wildfires now raging in Boulder County ever happen in Utah?

Homes burn as a wildfire rips through a development near Rock Creek Village on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, near Broomfield, Colo.
Homes burn as a wildfire rips through a development near Rock Creek Village on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, near Broomfield, Colo. A few snowstorms and cold wintry conditions do not erase the West-wide drought and mean the chances of a wildfire are not eliminated.
David Zalubowski, Associated Press

A few snowstorms and cold wintry conditions do not erase the West-wide drought, meaning the chances of a wildfire are not eliminated.

The majority of Utah, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, remains in extreme drought as of Thursday, and some portions of the state remain potentially ripe for wind-whipped wildfires.

Gusts of up to 100 mph led to downed power lines in Boulder County, Colorado, sparking grass fires that destroyed more than 500 homes and led to the evacuation of 30,000 people.

The Marshall Fire that began Thursday moved so fast in the densely populated area that few people had time to grab any belongings and simply had to escape with their lives and pets.

The destruction of Colorado’s wildfires brought reaction from some of Utah’s top politicians.

Utah Rep. John Curtis, who has supported national legislation that would accelerate wildfire cleanup and prevent future disasters, tweeted Colorado’s wildfire “goes to show how close to home our work can come.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also tweeted that Colorado is “in our thoughts,” along with the “brave first responders battling the flames.”

Could a fire like Colorado’s ever happen in Utah?

While there is snow in the mountains and in some valleys across Utah, it does not mean that some portions of the state are not still at risk for wildfires, especially coming off record heat and dry conditions this summer.

There remains a low to moderate risk of wildfires in a huge swath of eastern Utah, creeping into a section of central Utah, according to a fire risk informational map put out by Utahfireinfo.gov

Snow in the mountains and a potential wildfire on the range may seem at odds with each other, but climate scientists, hydrologists and others have warned repeatedly that it will take more than just one good winter to lift Utah and the rest of the West out of the drought because these incredibly drier-than-normal conditions have persisted for a couple of decades.

Firefighters spray water on a structure fire as a wildfire burns on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in Superior, Colo. Thousands of residents in Superior and Louisville, two communities near Denver, were ordered to evacuate Thursday because of a wind-fueled wildfire that engulfed parts of the area in smoky, orangish skies.
David Zelio, Associated Press

The high winds that rocked Boulder County were part of an Arctic air mass descending on the area ahead of a storm, much like Utah that experienced extremely gusty winds leading to a snow squall and incredibly cold temperatures.

Winds and power lines at any time of the year are a bad combination, leading at best to power outages and at worst to situations like that in Boulder County where people’s lives have been turned upside down.

Failure of a California power company to maintain its equipment led to a series of wildfires in 2017 and 2018, including one that wiped out the entire town of Paradise and led the company to plead to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Pacific Gas & Electric announced this summer plans to bury 10,000 miles of its power lines in an effort to prevent more wildfires.

In Utah, protocols initiated several years by Rocky Mountain Power result in ongoing assessments of wildfire risks coupled with high winds.

The utility has warned of voluntarily instituting power outages in some Utah mountain neighborhoods, but the blackouts did not have to happen.