Rains dampen but don’t douse drought | VailDaily.com
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Rains dampen but don’t douse drought

Matt Zalaznick

Gov. Bill Owens has let the statewide ban expire, but the ban imposed in June by Eagle County Sheriff A.J. Johnson still prohibits all open burning from Vail Pass to Glenwood Canyon.

Campfires and other open flames are also still prohibited in 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest that surrounds the valley, says Sue Froeschle, a spokeswoman for the forest.

“While we’ve had good rains and we’re very happy with the rains. (But) we still have conditions that could dry up very quickly if the wind comes up,” Froeschle.

White River Forest officials will discuss their fire restriction on Monday after district rangers assess the fire risk, Froeschle says.

“We’ll look at weather forecasts to see if we can go to less stringent fire restrictions,” she says. “We’re very concerned about hunters in the area – and we certainly want to make reasonable accommodations for them – but we also recognize there is still a potential for fires.”

This fire season has been explosive in the White River National Forest, where wildfires have burned eight times as much acreage as in a normal summer, Froeschle says.

“We’ve had a unprecedented year in the forest,” she says. “Typically about 5,000 acres burn; this year we’re above 40,000 acres.”

That includes a series of large, destructive fires such as the Coal Seam Fire in Glenwood Springs, the Spring Creek Fire near Rifle and the Big Fish Fire in the Flat Tops. But Eagle County has made it through the summer with only a smattering of minor fires.

“On the east side of the forest, we’ve had fire activity, but they’ve been situations that we’ve been able to address quickly and suppress,” she says. “That hasn’t been the situation on the west side of the forest.”

While the rains during the past week have been a bit more intense than what’s normal for September, National Weather Service hydrologist Brian Avery says Colorado is still a long way from conquering one of the worst droughts in recorded history.

“It’s been an excessive amount of rain,” he says. “But everyone is still well below normal. Certainly, the amount of rain in August and the first-half of September helped a little bit in the short-term, but we still need 16 to 20 inches of moisture in the next six months to break the drought.

“And that’s unlikely to happen,” he adds.

Kim Andree, spokeswoman for the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, says Sheriff Johnson has not lifted his fire ban –meaning all open burning is still prohibited.

“After conferring with the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and fire officials, we’d like to see if the weather produces rain next week,” Andree says. “I think we’ll be in a wait-and-see period for a couple of weeks. It’s definitely getting cooler at night and cooler in the fields, and that’s nice.”

Avery says this week’s rain was heavier because it was powered by remnants from Tropical Storm Fay that crossed from the Gulf of Mexico into Texas last Saturday. The rain has been a mixed blessing for various parts of Colorado, causing serious flooding in parts of the state that have been hit by major wildfires, he says.

“For areas that have been unaffected by wildfires, the precipitation has been very helpful,” Avery says.

The rain is expected to taper off today, and the forecast for this week is dry and windy, though cooler, with highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s in the Vail Valley, Avery says. And even as winter reduces the risk of wildfires, water shortages may still be a problem, he adds.

“I don’t foresee the ending of the drought any time soon,” Avery says.

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.


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