Colorado fire season starts early
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – The valley’s fire chiefs are all casting wary eyes around the state, worrying whether Colorado’s next big fire could happen here.
Three local fire departments – the Vail Fire Department, the Eagle River Fire Protection District and the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District – have sent trucks and firefighters to the Lower North Fork fire in Jefferson County. Among the roughly 450 firefighters on the scene, there are three trucks and nine people from Eagle County fighting that fire, which had claimed two lives, destroyed 27 buildings and burned nearly 4,000 acres as of Wednesday afternoon.
The fire chiefs that sent crews responded for a couple of reasons – the natural urge to help in an emergency, and the hope that Front Range districts will respond in kind if there’s a big fire in Eagle County.
And the elements are starting to fall into place for a serious fire season in Eagle County, although Eagle County Emergency Management Director Barry Smith said the current fire danger is “low” to “moderate” across much of the Western Slope.
There are actually two fire seasons in this area. The first is right about now, as snow cover clears but before plants have started to green up. Gypsum Fire Department Chief Dave Vroman said that first season has started about three weeks early this year, although Smith remembers a couple of serious March fires up Lake Creek several years ago.
That first fire season eases as new growth pops up in forests and wildlands. Then, in late June or so, the grasses start to dry out, which can create another fire season that can last until the snow flies in the fall.
That season can move earlier into June if the usual monsoon rainfall doesn’t come, Greater Eagle Fire Protection District Division Chief Tom Wagenlander said. Those monsoon rains can help keep “fine fuels” – the kind that burn hot and fast – moist enough to lower fire danger, at least for a while.
Wagenlander said this early season has some potentially scary elements. For instance, the National Weather Service overnight forecast for March 27-28 put the relative humidity as low as 13 percent. That’s the point at which grasses and brush will ignite if there’s much of a spark.
Combine low humidity and warm daytime highs and you get what Vroman called “freeze and fry” days, in which wild lands get progressively more dry. Throw wind into the mix, and the fire formula gets even more volatile. The Lower North Fork fire is the biggest example of that formula right now, but a Monday fire in Summit County quickly went from a spark to 5 acres before it was contained.
The Vail Fire Department sent a truck and crew to that fire Monday. Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller said the call went out quickly from Summit County officials for as much help as possible to get that fire under control.
“That initial attack is key,” Miller said. “You want to get as many people as possible on a fire as early as possible.”
Miller said Vail will bring in a six-person crew about May 1 to help clear town land of beetle-killed timber and other fire-prone material. Members of that crew are also certified wildland firefighters.
“Having them here helps me sleep better at night,” Miller said.
Vroman said he’s currently praying for monsoon rains, especially since the National Weather Service’s long-range forecast calls for higher-than-average temperatures and lower-than-average precipitation for at least the next 90 days. Conditions this dry this early can be a bad sign for the fire season later this summer, he said.
While local fire officials can’t do anything about the weather, they’re already planning for what might happen in the coming months.
Eagle River Fire Protection District Chief Karl Bauer spent much of Tuesday morning meeting with fire management officers from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Bauer said his district, which runs from the top of Tennessee Pass to Wolcott, said local departments all depend on each other. But, he said, he’s doubly concerned about the prospects for this fire season since his department is facing big financial cutbacks that may result in intermittently closing some of the department’s stations.
“It’s good to have help on the way, but that takes time,” Bauer said.
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or email@example.com.