Annual monsoon pattern is bringing needed relief to Eagle County dry spell
By the numbers
40 percent: Portion of Colorado classified as “abnormally dry” by the U.S. Drought Monitor as of July 25.
19 percent: Portion of the state that was abnormally dry the same week in 2016.
33 percent: Chance of above-average moisture in Colorado over the next 30 days.
3: Days in the next 7 with at least a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms in Avon.
EAGLE COUNTY — Just as Colorado’s Western Slope started slipping into drought, it looks like conditions are changing for the better.
The U.S. Drought Monitor’s map of Colorado put almost 40 percent of the state — including a portion of southern and western Eagle County — into the “abnormally dry” drought category.
That classification may not last long.
Developing Weather patterns
Becky Bolinger, a climatologist and drought specialist at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, said a dry late winter and early spring did a lot to dry out much of the state’s western areas, particularly in lower elevations. Those conditions led to fire restrictions being imposed across western Colorado, as well as areas from the Continental Divide east toward the Front Range.
Bolinger said recent rains and developing weather patterns may remove much of the state from the drought map in the near future.
“I do expect we’ll have some improvement,” Bolinger said, adding that a transition from low relative humidity to higher humidity will be seen in vegetation around the state.
That’s good news for those who evaluate the area’s potential for wildfire.
Eagle County Wildfire Mitigation Manager Eric Lovgren said the Vail Valley’s dry spell peaked in late June and early July. The dry weather, even at higher elevations, had a significant affect on conditions even in higher elevations.
Lovgren said he walked around the old mining camp of Fulford in June “and it was like walking through a field of potato chips.” About a week later, wildfires sparked near Breckenridge and in northern Eagle County near the Grand County line.
Some good moisture between then and now has been helpful, Lovgren said.
Moisture in native plants and grasses “seems to be coming back,” Lovgren said.
That tends to happen in July and August, as monsoonal moisture flows from the southwest into Colorado. That seasonal moisture is usually welcome, but is often short-lived.
And, Lovgren said, mid-summer moisture can have a downside. Rains can encourage growth in grass and shrubs, which then dry out as summer turns to fall. And afternoon thunderstorms often bring lightning, which can spark small fires even when there’s plenty of moisture in the air and on the ground.
With moisture in the forecast in the immediate future, there’s a chance that fire restrictions may be lifted. Fire officials from around the region conduct a conference call once per week during fire season to determine the relative danger in the area.
Lovgren said new and coming moisture could cause those restrictions to be lifted. But, he added, the team usually waits to lift fire restrictions until there’s a reasonably good chance the danger won’t rise into dangerous territory again for the season.
While the forecast has mostly good news, both Bolinger and Lovgren said residents and visitors still need to be cautious with fire.
Bolinger cautioned people in the backcountry — especially in canyons — to keep an eye on the sky, as well.
“You always need to be wary of flash floods,” she said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @scottnmiller.
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