Fireﬁghters: ‘Every drop helps’
Ryan Summerlin July 1, 2012
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Afternoon showers the past few days were a welcome sight for Summit and Eagle county firefighters, but the accompanying lightning also brought the danger of new ignitions.
“It does help,” Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue spokesman Steve Lipsher said of the recent rain. “Every drop helps, believe it or not.”
The storms and afternoon cloud cover, staples of summer weather in Colorado that have been notably absent this season, also drove up the relative humidity, which can significantly impact how quickly a fire would spread.
Without rain, relative humidity consistently dropped into the single digits in the afternoons last week.
“That’s Saharan,” Lipsher said.
But thunderstorms and, more importantly, lightning have come along with the rain the past few days, and both can pose significant risks to a still dry and beetle-killed forest.
Lightning is an obvious problem: It started most of the wildfires now burning in Colorado.
But the thunderstorms themselves also can cause concerns. They frequently create downdrafts – columns of fast-moving air descending straight to the ground from the clouds. When the wind column hits the ground, it splatters, sending air shooting in different directions, which can cause a fire to quickly change course.
“These can be really dangerous to firefighters,” Lipsher said.
And still, there’s the fact that though the rain was helpful, it wasn’t enough.
Summit County’s fire danger rating was lowered this week in the wake of the storms, but it is still at “very high,” the second-highest setting on the five-level scale. Eagle County’s rating remains “extreme,” the highest level of fire danger on the scale.
“We have forests that are half dead with pine beetle,” Lipsher said. “If you look at them wrong, they’ll go up in flames. It’s not that we’re out of the woods, it’s that the situation on the ground is slightly more favorable than it was even last week.”
While Eagle County received a little bit of rain over the past few days, experts agree moisture can evaporate at a rate of a quarter to half an inch of rain per day.
There is a 20 percent chance of precipitation in the forecast every day through Tuesday, but meteorologists say the storms might be more isolated than the showers of the past few days.
The best chance for sustained moisture is the Southwest Monsoon, which is approximately two weeks away, though it is unclear whether the wetter weather will ever make it to the region.
“We’re not sure which way the plumes are going to go,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Kalina. “It could come across western Colorado, but if it stays to the south, it won’t bring a lot of rain.”
The monsoon generally bring consistent rainfall to the southwestern U.S., including Arizona and New Mexico.
“Colorado’s just more questionable,” Kalina said.