Valley now under red flag fire warning | VailDaily.com

Valley now under red flag fire warning

Phillip Karius and Anna Ivanova, of the Vail Fire Department, carry sections of recently cut tree sections to make piles for drying. The piles will eventually be burned once the wood is dry enough.

EAGLE COUNTY — As we near the end of what's been a mostly green summer, those grasses are starting to dry out. That drying pattern has led to the declaration of a red flag warning for areas below 8,000 feet. That warning, which covers the northwest quarter of the state, means fire danger is high in those areas.

While the region has been relatively dry during the past several days, wind is driving what the National Weather Service calls fire weather. That sustained, strong wind saps moisture out of grasses and other fuels, meaning those dried-out plants catch fire easily.

If a fire does spark, the wind can quickly turn a small fire into something much more dangerous.

FIRES IN EAGLE COUNTY

Tom Wagenlander is the interim chief of the Eagle-based Greater Eagle Fire Protection District. Crews from that department joined crews from the Gypsum Fire Department and federal wildland fire crews in fighting an Aug. 9 fire southwest of Gypsum on Cottonwood Pass. Wagenlander said the first crews found a fire of one or two acres, which quickly more than doubled in size. A small air tanker was called in to drop retardant on the blaze, and crews had to set other fires to stop the fire from spreading.

The fire burned hot, too.

Recommended Stories For You

"It was burned right down to the (grasses') nub," Wagenlander said.

Another small fire in the Horse Mountain area north of Wolcott was set off by recreational shooters. Bullets sparking off stones down range set grasses alight. Wagenlander said that's something hunters coming into the valley in a few weeks need to keep in mind.

LOW HUMIDITY, HIGH TEMPERATURES

The dried grasses around the valley's lower elevations have mostly stopped growing, Wagenlander said. Even the sagebrush, which still looks green, is very dry.

While the fire danger is high right now in lower elevations, officials are keeping a close eye on fire danger throughout the county.

Vail Fire Department Fire Marshal Mike Vaughan said crews continue to work on clearing fire-prone areas around town, and the town's wildland crews are fully staffed and ready to go if needed.

Still, the fuel moisture levels above 8,000 feet remain relatively high. Below that elevation, though, fuels are hitting or dropping below moisture levels when grasses are considered dry and sparkable.

Aside from sucking moisture from plants, the winds in recent days have also dropped the relatively humidity around western Colorado below 15 percent. That's dry.

The National Weather Service reported Friday afternoon that the humidity in Avon was 15 percent. In Gypsum, by far the driest part of the valley, the humidity was only a bit higher, but the temperature had passed the 90-degree mark. Warmer temperatures were forecast through the weekend and into the first part of the new week.

Aside from low humidity and strong winds, the wind direction is also important.

Ellen Heffernan, a meteorologist at the weather service's Grand Junction office, said the winds that have blown in smoke from wildfires in Oregon, Washington, California and Nevada is also carrying very little moisture. Heffernan said the wind pattern will have to shift south quite a lot to pick up any moisture and, perhaps, scrub the sky. That could happen by Tuesday or Wednesday.

"We're expecting improvement," Heffernan said. "Maybe we'll get a mini-monsoonal surge. If we get some good rain and airflow out of the south/southwest, we should see a marked improvement."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

What about the haze?

The haze that’s settled into the valley comes from the many wildfires burning to the west. According to Ellen Heffernan, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office, the first couple of days of haze came courtesy of winds blowing from the northwest. Those winds carried smoke from large fires in Washington and Oregon. As the winds into Colorado came more directly from the west, that weather pattern picked up smoke from wildfires in California and Nevada.

Heffernan said we probably won’t see any relief from the haze until next week, with winds coming from the southwest and, maybe, some rain.