Expect more ‘red flag’ alerts this summer | VailDaily.com

Expect more ‘red flag’ alerts this summer

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – There’s a term we’re likely to hear a lot this summer: “red flag warning.” But what is it?

Red flag warnings are intended to warn the public that weather conditions are ripe for the spread of wildfires. The warnings use a formula that combines wind, temperature, relative humidity and the moisture level of grasses. If those conditions exist for three hours out of 12, a warning is issued.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Matt Aleska said that agency issues warnings. After that, it’s up to local officials to decide what to do.

Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller said local fire agencies already have a plan to fight wildfires this year. That plan – which will send as much manpower as possible to a fire as soon as it’s reported – won’t change with weather conditions. What will change is how closely fire officials monitor the possibility of wildfire.

But, Miller said, the public can use red flag warnings as a way to be more careful with outdoor burning. Miller added that when conditions warrant people should call 911 if they even think they see smoke.

“I really hope people become hyper-vigilant, and understand how easy fire can spread and how quickly a small fire can blow up,” Miller said.

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Miller added he’d rather have his people chase several calls that turn out to be nothing than get late information on a fire that could quickly turn into something much bigger.

“If something does break out, the only way we’ll get a handle on it is by getting to is quickly,” Miller said.

While red flag warnings can come and go over the course of a few days, they can often provide quicker information than, say, county-imposed fire restrictions.

Eric Lovgren, the wildfire coordinator for Eagle County, said there can be days when agricultural or other outdoor burning might be all right in the morning, but not in the afternoon.

While Lovgren said red flag warnings have been “almost over-used” in past years, this season is different, and people need to pay attention.

“If you’re planning to camp or grill, you need to be especially careful on those days,” Lovgren said. Like Miller, Lovgren encouraged residents to call if they see smoke in the surrounding wildlands. He said red flag days might also be the day to call about a neighbor’s burning.

“One day last year we got a report of somebody burning on Eby Creek and the trucks rolled,” Lovgren said. “I’d rather have somebody get a tongue-lashing, or a ticket, than have something turn into a fire.”

The importance of finding small fires, particularly from lighting strikes, can sometimes show up days after a report.

Lovgren said a resident called in a report of a lighting strike one summer day a few years ago. The rain following the strike put down a small fire, but the embers remained.

“Five days later we had a fire,” he said.

“If you see something, call it in, and (firefighters) can decide if it was a false alarm,” he said.

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.