Region bracing for wildfires
Spring has sprung – and so have preparations for this year’s wildfire season.
March’s unseasonably warm temperatures and lack of precipitation have motivated fire officials to step up plans to prevent wildfires.
Mike Piper, Glenwood Springs fire chief, said June 1 is generally considered the beginning of wildfire season, but he and other regional fire officials are moving plans up a bit because of the dry and hot weather.
“We are getting warmer temperatures earlier,” said Kristi Ponozzo, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman. “That’s causing us to do earlier prescribed burns.”
Ponozzo said the Forest Service usually doesn’t begin prescribed burns – fires intentionally-set to clear the dead trees and brush called fuels by firefighters – until the end of April and early May, but not this year.
“We already did a prescribed burn near Gypsum on March 22,” Ponozzo said, “and we’re planning more in the next couple weeks.”
Frankie Romero, the fire management officer at Rifle’s federal interagency fire office, had some good news amidst this early concern. “Fuels on BLM, forest and regional areas don’t seem to be any higher than normal,” he said.
Ponozzo said the Forest Service is focusing its burning in areas where homes and other buildings are close to wilderness. “We try to reduce wildfire hazards next to structures, to keep fires from damaging personal property,” she said.
Piper said officials from regional fire departments, the Forest Service, the Garfield County Sheriff’s office and the Bureau of Land Management have already held their annual operations planning meeting for the upcoming fire season. “We create mobilization plans and make agreements on how our agencies work together,” he said.
The mid-March “heat wave” concerns wildfire specialists because warm temperatures melt snow and sap moisture out of the ground – which greatly increases fire risk.
Temperatures hovered in the mid to high 70s from Glenwood Springs to Parachute last weekend, melting snow and drawing people outside to enjoy the warm weather.
In Grand Junction, record-breaking temperatures topped out at 81 degrees at Walker Field on Sunday, according to forecaster Jim Daniels from the National Weather Service.
To compound matters, Daniels said that March – usually the month with the most precipitation – has been extremely dry this year.
“Up until March, we were having a better winter in terms of moisture in the region,” said Daniels. “But that precipitation seemed to peak in late February.”
Fluctuating weather has got fire officials wondering what’s considered the norm. “After the last three years, I don’t know what ‘usual’ is,” said Piper. “I just don’t know what’s accounting for these wild swings in weather.”
For the immediate future, Daniels said forecasters are assuming there will be more storms in April.
“The 30-day outlook is not indicating a continuation of this warm and dry weather,” Daniels said. “There’s some hope for more typical precipitation and temperature.”
And after the 30 days?
“We’ll likely see the same hot and dry weather we’ve been seeing in June and July,” Daniels said.