Heat wave drying out West; increasing wildfire danger
DENVER (AP) ” A weeklong heat wave is rapidly drying out the lush grass and underbrush left behind by the wet spring, which could increase the wildfire danger across Colorado, fire experts said Monday.
Officials still predict a normal fire season but warned the hot, dry weather could raise the threat.
“The longer we have these drying spells, the closer we get to possibly higher fire danger,” said Larry Helmerick, spokesman for the five-state Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. “The whole western part of the state is drying out very fast, and some fuels have already cured.”
Helmerick said much of the state hasn’t seen the tall, green grasses for about six years because of the drought. As those plants dry out, they become the smaller fuel that can quickly feed a fire, he said.
That especially could increase fire danger in lower elevations, where the plants are plentiful, said Randy Eardley, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
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“That is the case throughout the West,” Eardley said. “The lower elevations are the big concern this summer.”
The center’s wildfire prediction, issued earlier this month, said Colorado would have a normal wildfire season, with a small part of higher elevations in the southwestern part of the state having a below normal season. A significant area including Idaho, western and southern Montana, northern Wyoming, Nevada, western Utah, western and southern Arizona and southeastern California has potential for an above normal fire season.
However, the wet winter and spring has helped delay the fire season by several weeks, Eardley said. Areas in higher elevations and larger types of fuel, such as trees, are in better shape and aren’t drying out as quickly.
In Colorado, there have been 194 fires that burnt 1,629 acres reported thus far this year. The yearly average is 2,300 fires and 50,000-60,000 acres, Helmerick said. Most fires this year were contained quickly, he added.
The Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center has labeled most of Colorado either moist, with little threat of large fires, or dry, with a low threat of large fires.
Helmerick said officials were considering raising Colorado’s preparedness ranking from the lowest level, especially considering that many forecasters also are predicting a weaker than usual monsoon season. He said the center’s forecast for the rest of the fire season would be released in July.
But no one is predicting a fire season similar to the one in 2002, at the peak of the drought, when wildfires ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres in Colorado. The state’s largest wildfire ever, the Hayman fire charred 138,000 acres that year.
At the Mesa Verde National Park near the Four Corners, fields of purple grass that thrived during the moist spring were drying out quickly, said Marc Mullenix, the park’s fire management officer. But the fires there so far have been small, thanks to the increased moisture. One small fire burned four acres recently.
“It burned hot in some areas, but if it had happened in 2002, it would’ve been 40 acres to begin with and maybe hundreds of acres,” Mullenix said.
On the Net:
Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center: http://www.blm.gov/colorado/rmafwx/index.html
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov