Coming days’ weather will play a big role in effort to contain Grizzly Creek Fire
Predicting wildfire activity from day to day is a lot like predicting the weather. In fact, they go hand in hand, explains Matt Jeglum, a meteorologist working with the Grizzly Creek Fire incident command team.
Weather has a lot to do with the ability of firefighters to gain the upper hand on the now nearly 30,000-acre fire burning in and above Glenwood Canyon — both good and potentially bad. By Friday morning, the fire was reported to be 11% contained.
“We have seen quite a few thunderstorms in the vicinity of the fire, some of which are putting down heavy rain in places,” Jeglum said in a Thursday afternoon interview.
“Heavy” by recent standards, Jeglum clarified during that evening’s community meeting webcast live via Facebook. “But not by the normal standards you’re used to seeing this time of year.”
Those storms have also brought gusty, erratic down-draft winds and some lightning strikes, which, unlike rain, are not helpful in fighting fires.
One of those lightning strikes is believed to be the cause of the new Red Canyon Fire that burned about 50 acres Wednesday evening roughly five miles south of the Grizzly Fire area in the upper Spring Valley area.
Fire Operations Section Chief Jeff Surber said during the community meeting that a “well-coordinated” air and ground attack got the blaze knocked down. No structures were lost, and residents who had to be quickly evacuated were allowed back in later that night.
Thursday afternoon’s thunderstorm winds reignited one corner of that fire, burning about 10 additional acres before it, too, was knocked down, Surber said. Crews are continuing to monitor that area both day and night to watch for anymore hot spot flare-ups, he said.
Looking ahead to the next few days and into next week, Jeglum said drier and hotter days are expected to return Friday through the weekend.
But, “things could get interesting” starting Monday and into the middle of next week as the monsoonal weather pattern that is more typical this time of year is expected to return.
That’s good on the precipitation front in terms of helping with fire containment, but could be bad if a heavy rain cell develops over the fire burn area in Glenwood Canyon, he said.
“The monsoon season has been largely a failure this summer from Arizona and Utah and into Colorado,” Jeglum said.
But that familiar high-pressure system over the western United States is starting to build again, which could bring both relief and the threat of debris flows in fire burn areas across the region.
In Glenwood Canyon, a special Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team is already evaluating potential for debris flows and rockfall hazards, and working on a plan to mitigate the danger before Interstate 70 reopens, said Lisa Stoeffler, deputy supervisor for the White River National Forest.
“We are looking at the immediate risks for rockfall and debris flow if a storm hits,” she said. “We will be meeting with key partners, including CDOT, the city of Glenwood Springs and county emergency services to plan for those potential storm events.
Weather and fire
Jeglum also described the “wildland fire triangle” that goes into the daily tactical decision-making when it comes to fighting fires. The three sides of that triangle are terrain, fuels and weather.
“Obviously, the terrain is static and doesn’t change, so it’s the fuels and weather that we look at, and weather is what drives the fuels,” he said.
Jeglum spends his days on a fire incident in front of his computer watching satellite and radar imagery, and making surface observations, looking for thunderstorms and lightning and other weather events. He then relays that to the incident commanders and those in the field so they can make the right tactical decisions, he said.
Jeglum’s “day job” is as a research meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. He was a firefighter in college, and now spends a good part of his summer working with fire incident command teams across the west.