About half of Coloradans now live in wildfire-prone areas, a nearly 50 percent increase from 2012 to 2017, say data released Monday by the Colorado State Forest Service.

Wildfire officials urge Coloradans to prepare for the worst.

“I think it’s important that when anybody is living in that environment, they understand the risks that are there,” said Kristin Garrison, fire, fuels and watersheds manager for the state Forest Service. “What most people may not realize is that we live in a fire-dependent environment, meaning the vegetation that’s around Colorado — our trees, forests, the grasslands — they need fire to be healthy. And so we have to learn how to live with fire.”

As of last year, about 2.9 million people — more than half of the 5.6 million residents estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau — lived in Colorado’s wildland-urban interface, “where human improvements are built close to, or within, natural terrain and flammable vegetation,” the state Forest Service reports. That’s up from 2 million people in 2012.

The number has increased not only because of more people moving into wildfire-risk zones, but also due to better data and changes in land use and vegetation patterns, said Amanda West, a science information manager for the state Forest Service.

“In particular on the Front Range, something that’s noticeable is areas that were primarily irrigated agriculture have often turned to grasslands, so some of these areas are now considered part of the wildland-urban interface,” West said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that residents are at high risk for wildfires. It might be considered a low risk for wildfire, but it is at a (higher) risk relative to more core, inner urban areas.”

“As we’ve seen in Colorado,” Garrison said, “fires can occur any time of the year. We used to call it the fire season, and now it’s a fire year.”

That’s why she emphasizes “being prepared — not only for your belongings and evacuation, but having your property prepared, so that when fire comes through your community, it can reduce the negative impacts.”

The Colorado Springs area, which abuts the mountains, already has weathered the deadly Waldo Canyon fire of 2012 and the Black Forest fire of 2013.

Those living in the wildland-urban interface should be “very concerned,” said City Council President Richard Skorman, who lives in the wildfire zone and deems the high risk as the community’s most important issue.

Mitigation is crucial, but so is fast response to fires, Skorman said, noting that the city has improved its mutual-aid pacts with other jurisdictions.

“We’re only going to be able to mitigate ourselves out of fire risk so much … we have 1.1 million acres at our western border; we have a lot of built environment in our wildland-urban interface,” he said.

“The fuel buildup is so great that we will never not have the risk. The hope from my standpoint is that we can identify fires quickly and rapidly respond.”

The state Forest Service website has resources and advice for homeowners who want to reduce their risk, Garrison said. For more information, visit csfs.colostate.edu/wildfire-mitigation.

The agency’s wildfire risk data — based on housing, population, vegetative fuels, weather and other factors — are in an updated version of the Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal, an online mapping tool at coloradowildfirerisk.com (you may need to update your Adobe Flash player). It’s the first update since the portal was launched in 2013.

Layers of data with geographic information allow users to view themes such as potential fire intensity, historic fire occurrence and values at risk from wildfire, such as homes, drinking water supplies and forest assets.

A new “burn probability” layer was created using an advanced GIS tool for modeling wildfire behavior and spread, based on millions of wildfire simulations, the release says.

But the risk assessment portal shouldn’t be used to determine parcel-level risk to individual homes or current fire danger, West warned.

“Our tool is best used at the scale of a community or larger,” West said. “Based on the spatial scale of the data, it’s not useful for an individual homeowner to look at risk.”

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