Sep 29, 2021 - News
As new wildfire burns, concern about smoke increases in Colorado
An aerial view of the Ptarmigan fire near Silverthorne on Tuesday afternoon. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
An aerial view of the Ptarmigan Fire near Silverthorne on Tuesday afternoon. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

A Summit County wildfire is prompting homeowner evacuations and sending sooty plumes into the sky, adding to a year of smoky conditions in Colorado.

Threat level: The Ptarmigan Fire northeast of Silverthorne expanded to about 80–110 acres Tuesday after more than doubling in size in its first 24 hours.

  • The blaze's proximity to the 291 homes in the Hamilton Creek neighborhood — which is under a mandatory evacuation — makes it a top priority for firefighters.
  • An air tanker, helicopter and crews on the ground are working to keep it from traveling down the hill toward homes.
  • Of note: An approaching winter storm will bring cooler temperatures with rain or snow and may help limit the fire's spread.

The big picture: A new analysis from NPR and a lab at Stanford University shows wildfire smoke is blanketing Colorado more often in recent years.

Why it matters: Exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to respiratory or cardiovascular problems, as well as other health issues. And even the World Health Organization is says Colorado should take action.

By the numbers: Half of Colorado — along the Wyoming border, Front Range and the Eastern Plains — saw wildfire smoke an average of six to eight weeks per year from 2016 to 2020.

  • The other half — including Denver and mountain communities in central and southwest Colorado — is exposed to smoke four to six weeks on average.
  • This represents an increase of at least one week for the entire state compared with the four years prior.
  • And some northern parts of the state are seeing three to five more weeks of smoke per year, according to Colorado Public Radio.

Zoom in: In Denver, residents were exposed to wildfire smoke an average of 40 days a year from 2016 through 2020.

  • This represents a 71% increase compared with 2009-2013.

What they're saying: Colorado leaders said the threat of wildfires and smoke is the new norm.

  • "The reality of increased fire risk in the West is a real one," Gov. Jared Polis told Axios Denver in a recent interview. "With climate change we need to be ready for more and longer fire seasons."
  • "The fires are here to stay," U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, (D-Lafayette) said at the recent Outdoor Retailer conference. "The question before us now is: Are we willing to make investments on the front end to do what we can to prevent the fires from getting out of control?"

What to watch: Neguse said the infrastructure bill backed by President Biden doesn't do enough to address climate change, but he's optimistic that the budget reconciliation measure will cover the gap.

  • To prevent wildfires, Neguse told Axios Denver, "it's going to require us to do much much more and quickly."
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