Federal officials expect ‘active fire season’ for Colorado River corridor | VailDaily.com

Federal officials expect ‘active fire season’ for Colorado River corridor

Alex Zorn
Rifle Citizen Telegram

RIFLE — With this year's wildfire season expected to burn thousands of acres throughout the state, fire officials with the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire and Aviation Unit met with members of the media this week to discuss and preview what the season may be like for the 5.8 million acres of land covered by the fire district.

Upper Colorado River district coverage is along Interstate 70 and the Colorado River corridors from the Continental Divide to the Utah state line.

Deputy Unit Fire Management Officer Josh Tibbetts said in 2017, the fire district responded to 136 wildfires, 97 of which were human-caused. In total, 16,000 acres burned.

He said the agency will continue to look for ways to reduce human-caused fires. So far in 2018 there have been 29 fires. Of those, 15 were human-caused.

'Smallest spark could cause a huge fire'

"We just want to make sure folks are doing what they can, but we must take precautions," he said. "The smallest spark could cause a huge fire."

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Tibbetts expects an active fire season in 2018. He said the agency is prepared for a long summer, but recent additions to the Grand Valley Fire and Colorado River Fire Rescue wildland divisions will help.

Colorado River Fire Rescue Wildland Fire Division Chief Zach Pigati said the department recently hired additional people to help with wildfires. With the new additions, the fire crew is now more of a statewide and national resource to help with wildfires and recently sent two trucks to Durango to help with the wildfire burning there.

Pigati said the additions came with a growing need in the area to help with wildfires, as Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service officials are already stretched thin. While the hires will be paid for through the district, it will be paid back from the wildfires it assists on throughout the state and nation.

"It's a good way to supplement budget," he said.

Pigati said the team will do more mitigation projects throughout the county to help with fire danger.

Upper Colorado River Supervisory Fuels Management Specialist Lathan Johnson gave an update on the moisture content in the vegetation, as well, stating that dead fuels around Glenwood Springs have been shown to have as little as 5 percent moisture content, while live sage brush by the Rifle airport have 130 percent moisture content (see table with this article for an explanation of how fire fuel moisture content is measured).

He added that vegetation at slightly higher elevation than the airport came back with a much higher moisture content at 210 percent.

Some of the drier species of vegetation, such as pinyon juniper, had a moisture content between 80 percent and 120 percent.

He added that once the live vegetation goes lower than 120 percent, it is considered critical fire fuel.

"For this time of year, it's early to be hitting those critical numbers," he said.

Fire officials will go out every two weeks to test the moisture content, he explained, and use the live fuel moisture data and the National Fire Danger Rating System to determine where the area sits in terms of fire danger.

"There's lots of science other than just snowpack numbers," he added.

At around this time last year, the sagebrush moisture content was at 133 percent. It was at 261 percent two years ago.

He also talked about the dangers of people using private drones during wildfires, which can cause huge problems for the firefighters.

"The public should never use a private drone adjacent to a wildfire," Johnson said.

He said the agency has burned more than 4,000 acres this spring, which not only reduces the risk of homes being burned in a wildfire, but is also important to the ecosystem.

High country residents looking for more information on how to fireproof their homes can visit http://www.firewise.org.