As people are increasingly drawn outdoors, the risk of wildfires is rising |

As people are increasingly drawn outdoors, the risk of wildfires is rising

Grant Stringer
The Colorado Sun

In July 2020, Seth Zachek was volunteering at a wildly popular trail in the San Juan mountains just outside of Silverton. The goal: teaching hikers how to tread lightly in the Ice Lakes Basin, a pristine wonderland high in the range.

The irony wasn’t lost on Zachek when volunteers discovered a plume of smoke and an unsafe, illegal campfire close to the trailhead.

“Some guy had dragged a whole half of a tree into this campfire,” Zachek said. “And it was, like, 8-foot-high flames next to the trailhead with all these people around.”

His trepidation turned out to be warranted. Three months later, a wildfire likely sparked by a cigarette butt burned through the lower basin, forcing a helicopter evacuation of 28 people and closing the trail for almost a year.

It was a scenario that advocates were trying to prevent, and one scrutinized in research published last month in the journal Natural Hazards.

Humans started more than a quarter of all wildfires from 2000 to 2018 in San Juan National Forest, and those fires tended to be closer to campgrounds, trails and roads, clear evidence that people enjoying the outdoors are often to blame, wrote University of North Alabama researchers who reviewed 18 years of data from the southern Colorado forest.

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