Mesa Verde Wildfires
Montezuma County, Colorado
Wildfires are one of several factors shaping Colorado’s ecology—influencing vegetation, animals, human well-being, and archeological sites. In Colorado, the number, size, frequency, and impact of wildfires have increased noticeably over the past 20 years—including at Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado.
Since its founding in 1906, wildfires have burned 70 percent of the park’s area. Most were comparatively small and caused by lightning. By comparison, five major fires that burned between 1989 and 2003 burned more than 50 percent of the park, threatening park infrastructure, cultural and natural resources, and human safety. Recent drought and previous fire suppression contributed to the severity of these fires. Cumulatively, these fires closed the parks for months—causing major declines in park visitation. Between 1999 and 2000, during and after the Bircher and Pony fires, the number of park visitors dropped by 184,989—from 656,023 to 471,034—with devastating impacts to the park’s revenues and to the economies of its gateway communities. Beyond the declining revenues and tourism, the fires also are expensive to fight—with costs often exceeding 1 million dollars.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mesa Verde National Park closed at sunset, March 25, 2020, halting to visitation and educational programs. Park visitation was zero between the end of March and the partial reopening on May 24, 2020. Throughout the summer the cliff dwellings and most hiking trails were closed because of the pandemic and extreme wildfire danger, and December’s luminaria-night open house was cancelled. Preliminary numbers suggest that in 2020 overall park visitation was down about 50 percent over previous years.
Photos generously provided by Mesa Verde National Park and Four Corners Fire Management Team