EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - The local weather forecast for the next few days is dry and windy with chances of lightning - it's not quite red alert level yet for local fire protection agencies, but it's getting close.
"It's fire weather for sure," said Ross Wilmore, with the U.S. Forest Service.
Colorado wildfires have been on the rise in recent weeks, and local fire officials are paying close attention to the fire danger. Depending on the area, the fire risk in the White River National Forest is high, very high or extreme, Wilmore said.
"We're looking at the wind blowing maybe into Sunday, and there's a couple of fronts coming through - for that reason we are concerned with fire danger," he said. "(We want people to) be really careful this weekend out in the backcountry with fire - it will be hot, dry and windy."
Heavy rains in June and July have actually made fire fuels a little bit worse, said Charlie Moore, fire chief at the Eagle River Fire Protection District. The extra fuels aren't necessarily a major risk, he said, but they could help a fire burn more intensely.
"It's not that uncommon to see high fire risk in August and September," Moore said. "It's pretty normal, actually."
This is the time when all the fire preparations that local fire officials have warned about for months become really important, said Eric Lovgren, Eagle County's fire mitigation specialist. Things like pulling back brush and weeds around homes and getting rid of other flammable materials around homes are extremely important, he said.
Residents need to take it upon themselves to know how to protect themselves and their homes, said Mark Miller, the Vail fire chief. Vail and Eagle County's Firewise programs send fire experts to homes to look at the dangers. Miller said more people took advantage of the program last year, but residents can still schedule an appointment for the free service.
"Each homeowner needs to have a self-awareness," Miller said.
Fire officials may have enjoyed the rainy months while they were here, but they knew it meant potentially more dangerous months to come. Early summer rain has helped grass grow quickly, meaning the so-called forest fuels can be more dangerous as things dry out, Miller said.
"Grass is quite tall - 2 to 3 feet in some areas around homes," Miller said. "As it dries out, then we have this huge surface fuel supply."
Surface fires tend to burn more intensely than fires burning at the tops of trees, Wilmore said. And with mountain pine beetles killing as many as 90 percent of the lodgepole pine trees in the area, dead trees leave room for sunlight to get to the surface more easily and dry it out. Dead trees can also blow over more easily in high winds, which leaves open areas uncovered and ready to burn.
Frequent thunderstorms in the area don't always mean the rain is getting enough moisture to those surfaces, either, Lovgren said.
"This is sort of just the beginning (of the fire season)," he said. "In the fall, with grasses starting to dry out, it lends itself to more ignition possibilities for things like lightning."
Eagle County fire officials are ready for anything, Wilmore said. Local officials collaborate with federal officials and each other, especially when conditions get risky.
"That's why we do all of those mitigation projects," Wilmore said. "I'm confident that if we get some small fires, we should be able to pick up most of them."
Since wildfires have been picking up nationally, resources are getting more scarce. Wilmore said if fires get active here, the Forest Service will be ordering more resources, like manpower and equipment, including air support.
That's why fire departments like Vail are keeping their men close by, rather than sending them to fight fires elsewhere.
"We're careful not to send wildland crews on deployments elsewhere because we want to make sure we have them if we need them," Miller said.
Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or email@example.com