The perfect storm: Lack of snow, warm temps and dry climate enhance fire danger over the weekend
Could this week’s snow forecast bring a reprieve for local resorts and local fire danger?
Without the expected winter storms that one would hope are synonymous with the start of ski season, local fire danger is missing the reprieve that these snow storms and winter moisture bring.
This weekend, several fires sparked across the state including several on the Front Range, one in Idaho Springs and one just south of Minturn on Tigiwon Road.
On Sunday, Dec. 5, crews from the Eagle River Fire Protection District, Vail Fire and Emergency Services and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office responded to reports of flames and smoke around 1 p.m. near the railroad trestle on Tigiwon Road.
Crews on the scene, responding with multiple brush trucks, were able to swiftly get the flames under control, containing the fire at under half an acre in size. The ground was rife with fuels including dry, flashy fields, dry grasses and shrubs.
While the cause of the fire is still under investigation by the Sheriff’s Office, whatever sparked the fire was aided significantly by the climate and weather conditions in the area.
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Tracy Leclair, the public information office for the Eagle River Fire Protection District, said that given the current conditions, getting the flames under control quickly was extremely important, as it could have spread quickly to the mixed conifer forest above the fire area.
“We have no snow, all of the grasses and brush have gone dormant so they’re extremely dry. I think today, our fire danger has increased to high, just because we have not had any moisture, and then the winds were obviously a concern yesterday; it was pretty gusty up there,” Leclair said in a phone interview on Monday. “Until we can get snow on the ground, those fields are going to be extremely dry; any small spark is going to spread quickly, especially in windy conditions.”
Leclair added that should these extremely dry and warm conditions prevail, the National Weather Service could issue red-flag warnings, meaning that fire restrictions would be implemented. She also expressed that residents and visitors remain cautious because things are “very, very dry out there,” adding that with the influx of visitors expected around the holiday, everyone remain vigilant and stay alert.
Winter fire danger
With sparks flying across the state this past weekend, Becky Bolinger, the assistant state climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center, said that wildfires in Colorado this time of year are both normal and abnormal.
“Where we’re at right now is all year long can have a fire. Our fire season is from January through December,” Bolinger said. “The reason that this is significant is because when we get into the higher elevations, we should have more snowpack and snow cover that should really be shutting things down. You can’t really have wildfires popping up in forests that are covered in snow.”
The conditions this past weekend, she added, were somewhat anomalous in the High Country, because areas that should be covered in snow are instead bare, dry ground.
For “fire weather” to occur, Bolinger said, there must be both long-term and short-term climate components — and this weekend had both. For the long-term components, Eagle County and most of Colorado has experienced prolonged drought conditions, the result of which is dry ground and vegetation. And for the short-term components, this past weekend saw these extremely dry conditions paired with low humidity and warm temperatures.
All these components, she added, make up the “ingredients you need for a dangerous wildfire situation — you have any spark, and it’s going to quickly get out of hand if you have days like that.”
Snowpack, droughts and fires
This connection between lower-than-average snowpack, increased drought conditions and the occurrence of large wildfires cannot, and should not, be ignored.
“We do know that when we have bad snowpack years, we tend to have bad wildfire years,” she said. “If we get to the end of winter and spring and our snowpack is below average, and we have an early melt out, then we could be looking at next summer having a higher risk for large wildfires and a bad wildfire season — that’s always the risk when you don’t get the snowpack that you need that is typical for the area.”
She added that with the existing conditions, the “window of opportunity” for the fires to spark is also greater and “with the drought contributing to it, those wildfires can just get bigger and stronger.”
As Bolinger noted, the lack of snowpack right now increases the fire danger in Colorado’s High Country.
“We are drier than average pretty much throughout the entire state. And snowpack is at a deficit right now,” Bolinger said, adding that everywhere across the state, “higher elevation, lower elevation, northern side of the state, all the way to the southern side of the state: Snowpack is less than what it should be at this time of year.”
However, Bolinger issued a reminder that it’s still early in the year in terms of snowpack accumulation.
“We still have plenty of time to make up those deficits,” she said, adding that one such opportunity includes later this week, when snowfall is expected to hit the High Country.
“It does look like over the next seven days some of the activity we’re going to get is going to help with that, especially in that Thursday to Friday time frame,” Bolinger said. “Hopefully that will bump those numbers up a little bit, and I’m assuming that for the higher elevations that that snowpack will really settle in and be good. I am a little concerned that in the lower elevations, where there really hasn’t been snowpack, and it’s been so anomalously warm, that it may be a struggle to get that to stay and keep it from melting.”
And this storm, she added, is crucial.
“I hope that the activity that we see in the next week is enough to really alleviate conditions, because right now, the outlook is that overall, December is going to be warmer than average,” Bolinger said. “So this might be one of our best shots at moisture and cool for the month. I hope I’m wrong, but we really need what’s coming down the pipeline this week.”
When asked whether late snowfall will become the new normal for Colorado’s winters, Bolinger said that snowpack is coming in later “more often than not” and that warm falls are becoming a “more consistent occurrence.”
With that, Bolinger said that these drier and warmer falls will certainly impact snowpack. However, still only time will tell.
“We do have a lot of variability and overall; we’re not really seeing a major trend in peak snowpack,” she said. “Somehow we’re still getting a lot of that snowpack that we need in our best-performing months of December, January, February and March.”
So, overall, it still isn’t too late to pray for snow.
Bolinger said that while it will be harder to get a normal peak snowpack and normal runoff next spring, “We’re still going to get snow; it’s still going to come.”