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Eagle County under red flag warning due to heat, wind

Fire weather warning boosts the county into Stage 2 fire restrictions

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted warmer-than-average May temperatures for most of the western U.S.
What's restricted? Eagle County is currently under a Red Flag fire weather warning. That’s moved the county to Stage 2 fire restrictions. Those restrictions include:
  • No outdoor open fires or campfires are allowed. That includes charcoal grills, wood-burning stoves and smokers.
  • Don’t smoke outdoors unless you’re in a developed recreational site or an area cleared of all combustible materials.
  • Using any internal or external combustion engine that isn’t equipped with a spark arrestor.
  • Any welding or torch work with an open flame. A local fire department can issue a site-specific permit after an inspection.
For more information, go to ecemergency.org.

This week started with a Monday red flag fire weather warning, and another for Tuesday, sending Eagle County into Stage 2 fire restrictions. This could be the start of a tense fire season.

Red flag warnings are issued when the National Weather Service forecasts a combination of strong winds and low relative humidity. Low humidity dries out grasses, shrubs and other fuels. Strong winds can easily whip a small fire into a much larger conflagration.

Eagle County has been under Stage 1 fire restrictions since April 10. Those restrictions were imposed in large part to keep people from using fire outside and had less to do with conditions than the ability of local fire departments to fight a blaze in the midst of a pandemic.

Gypsum Fire Protection District Chief Justin Kirkland said those initial restrictions were imposed to keep local firefighters safe during the worst spell so far of the COVID-19 virus. It’s hard to maintain social distancing on a fire line.

Kirkland added that for the past month, it’s been unclear how much, if any, outside aid might come in the event of a wildfire. Kirkland said the federal government hadn’t yet funded firefighting efforts for the year.

That funding has been approved, so help can come if needed. In addition, Kirkland said the virus seems a bit better controlled than it was in early April.

Conditions more fire-prone

That means the weekly conference calls among local and federal fire officials can now focus on natural conditions instead of possible resources available.

Those conditions are becoming more fire-favorable by the day right now. And, Kirkland said, most of the large wildfires across the U.S. start during red flag warnings.

While the red flag warning lasts only until midnight Tuesday, there isn’t much precipitation in the forecast.

While Monday and Tuesday were warm and windy, temperatures are forecast to drop to more seasonal levels later in the week. Still, there’s little, if any, precipitation in the foreseeable future.

Weather forecasters aren’t confident in predictions more than seven to 10 days in advance.

Tom Renwick, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office, said a high-pressure system is sitting over this region and doesn’t look like it’s going to move any time soon.

That’s what happened during the severe drought year of 2018, when a high-pressure system developed over the desert southwest and didn’t move for much of the summer.

The good news is that there’s been a decent snowpack in the northern Rockies the past two winters. That’s good for the higher elevations but doesn’t much help in the high desert terrain that makes up much of Eagle County.

But water supplies should be adequate, at least for the moment.

While the “snow water equivalent” at Vail Mountain is dropping quickly, snowpack at Fremont Pass — near the headwaters of the Eagle River — is still above the 30-year median. The same is true at Copper Mountain, which is near the headwaters of Gore Creek.

Summer’s outlook not encouraging

But the story for the summer isn’t encouraging.

Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger said the current snowpack in the northern part of the state is “OK … but not great.”

Still, she added, the northern part of the state is in much better shape than the southern part of the state.

That part of Colorado “Completely missed out on any snow in April,” Bolinger said. “The water supply forecast suffered for that.”

While the northern part of the state has adequate water supplies going into late spring and early summer, Bolinger said there’s little help on the horizon until and unless the seasonal “monsoon” season hits in July or so.

“Hold on for the ride,” Bolinger said. “These fire concerns are probably going to be a big problem for early summer.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com.


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