Dry conditions raise summer drought and wildﬁre concerns
Ryan Summerlin January 27, 2013
VAIL, Colorado – Dry conditions have some weather watchers casting concerned looks at next summer’s wildfire season.Colorado’s statewide snowpack is 70 percent of average, 91 percent of last year’s levels at this time and the fourth-lowest in 32 years, said Phyllis Ann Philipps, a state conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service.Eric Lovgren is Eagle County’s wildfire mitigation manager, and he’s a little nervous. “It is shaping up like last year, only worse,” Lovgren said.Lovgren says he’s not a climatologist, but he pays attention to history, especially our recent history.Wildfires started breaking out last March and were still breaking out around Thanksgiving, he said.The Front Range had red flag fire warnings Thursday, rekindling unpleasant memories of Colorado’s Lower North Fork fire, which broke out March 22, 2012.The Lower North Fork fire started when a prescribed burn was hit with 50 mph winds. Before it was done, it devoured 4,140 acres, killed three people and destroyed or seriously damaged 27 homes. At the fire’s peak, 900 homes had to be evacuated.How soon this year’s fire season starts depends on how fast the snowpack melts out, Lovgren said, adding that the Lower North Fork fire burned around patches of snow, he said.”If there’s no snow on the ground we can have fire any month of the year,” Lovgren said. “When there’s less moisture to push down some of those dry fuels, you can have fire.”Local fire officials are doing what they can to help prepare, but sometimes people understand only what’s landing on their heads.When local fire officials hosted the first “Ready Set Go” preparation meeting last June, 150 people attended. By the August meeting in Edwards, after a couple weeks of rain, 20 people showed up, Lovgren said.
Colorado’s Central Rockies are experiencing moderate-to-extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.So far this year, 10 states are experiencing “exceptional drought” conditions, while snow levels throughout the country are nearing record lows, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.Last year was the driest year in the contiguous United States since 1988, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In Nebraska and Wyoming, it was the driest year on record.”Wildfire losses have been on the rise during the past couple of years in several states, with Colorado, Texas and Wyoming being particularly hard hit,” said Julie Rochman, president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. “(This year) is shaping up to be another very dangerous year because of a combination of weather-related factors.”In 2012, more than 67,000 wildfires each burned more than 9.2 acres throughout the country, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That was the third largest number of acres burned in the United States in the 13 years the agency has been keeping track.According to NOAA’s “State of the Climate” report, 2012 was the warmest year on record in the contiguous United States. The average temperature in 2012 was a full degree higher (55.3 degrees Fahrenheit) than the previous record set in 1998. In addition, warm temperatures were coupled with severe drought.
Temperatures could swing as much as 40 degrees through the end of January, as waves of warm and cold air roll through the Rockies.AccuWeather forecasts temperatures will surge before arctic air blasts us back to reality later in the week.”When you compare temperatures during the height of the warm-up with the core of the arctic air that follows, some locations may have a difference of 40 degrees more,” said Paul Pastelok, a weather forecaster with Accuweather Long Range.So far, this winter season has been dominated by high pressure weather systems and a jet stream that has not cooperated, said Philipps said.Much-needed snowfall in December boosted Colorado’s snowpack from just 36 percent of average, recorded on Dec. 1. December’s mountain precipitation was 112 percent of average.