EAGLE COUNTY — It seems like July has been a wet month, but it actually wasn’t much more moist than July 2012, when the region was gripped in drought. Still, everything from streamflows to fire danger is better off this year than last, thanks, still, to a wet April and May.
Area fire officials have lifted the region’s “stage one” fire restrictions as of 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday. Those restrictions limited outdoor burning primarily to fire rings in campgrounds and curtailed most agricultural burning. Local streamflows are about at their seasonal norms, and stream temperatures dropped thanks to a weekend of cool, wet weather. That’s reason for a few deep breaths, if not celebration, from local fire and water-supply agencies.
Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller acknowledged that a firefighter is worried about something just about all the time. In Vail, worries about drought in the backcountry are often supplanted by concerns about flooding during the annual monsoon season. This year, though, that worry isn’t so deep.
Miller, who recently returned from a backpacking trip into local wilderness areas, reported that high-elevation vegetation remains lush. And, he added, there haven’t yet been any of the strong thunderstorm cells that can cause some of Gore Creek’s tributaries to flood.
Still, it just takes one persistent storm cell to make a big mess, as residents up Sweetwater Creek in western Eagle County learned last July. In that part of the county, damage is still visible from a big flash flood in July 2012.
It also takes just one lightning strike in the right — or wrong — place to spark a good-sized wildfire. That’s why local fire departments are continuing a policy started last year to aggressively attack every report of smoke, at least anywhere near human settlements.
Eagle County Wildfire Mitigation officer Eric Lovgren said some fires this year have been allowed to burn, such as a relatively minor fire in the Bull Gulch area.
But a handful of lightning strikes last week near Eagle were all attacked quickly, he said.
The lightning strikes never really threatened to spark a bigger blaze, Lovgren said, an example of the “short-term relief” brought by July rains.
“We don’t have the volatile conditions we had last year,” Lovgren said.
Still, he said, it’s going to take some time — and rain or snow — before the moisture levels in area soils and trees are up to normal levels.
But this summer is notably better than last summer, despite the fact that June of this year was virtually as dry as June of 2012. The SnoTel snow and rain measurement site on Vail Mountain recorded just 0.1 inch of precipitation in June, just a few drops better than 2012, when that site received no measurable precipitation at all between May 24 and July 1. The same site has recorded just a half-inch more rain in July than it did in 2012.
But that site is up to about 24 inches of precipitation recorded for the current “water year,” which starts in October, a significant improvement over the 20 inches recorded at the site at the end of July 2012.
Diane Johnson, of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, said much of the additional moisture came in April and May, which helped everything from local water supplies to streamflows and temperatures.
“Those storms put us into a normal pattern,” Johnson said. “It also kept people from outdoor watering, and keeping down watering use helps (customers) and the environment.”
The Vail numbers are just one data point of many in the valley, though, Johnson said. Precipitation can vary widely, she said, even from the east end of the Vail Golf Club to the west end of the course. Despite those variations, though, Johnson said this year has been a lot easier on her and her colleagues.
“It feels pretty good not to have to look at data first thing every morning,” she said.