Warm, dry weather drying out forest fuels
July 1, 2016
EAGLE COUNTY — Combine a cool, wet spring with a warm, dry start to summer, and the result is public lands that are rapidly becoming fire-prone.
The arrows on the Smokey Bear fire danger signs throughout the county have been wobbling the past week between "high" and "moderate." And, while no burning or camp fire restrictions are in place yet, officials say it won't take much more warm, windy weather to push Smokey's arrow firmly into the red zone.
The summer fire season is familiar to most fire officials in the region, and those officials just this week started a weekly series of phone conferences to talk about things such as fuel moisture, dried grasses and other factors.
"We're really, really close (to high danger) right now — it doesn't take a lot to push it over the top," Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek said. As Sheriff, van Beek is the county's top fire official outside of the established fire districts.
In the western valley, "You can already see brown grass among the green grass," van Beek said. "And that grass can burn quickly."
Those fast-drying grasses will be the first fuel to blaze if struck by lightning or ignited by a careless spark from fireworks or a campfire.
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Lightning already sparked a good-sized fire near Rifle this week. An unoccupied home south of Gypsum also burned this week, taking down a large, old evergreen tree in the process.
Those incidents, along with the season itself, has fire officials keeping a close eye on conditions.
In the eastern valley, Paul Cada, the Vail Fire Department's wildland fire specialist, said the greenery there is drying quickly, too.
"June was a very different month than May," Cada said. "We've gone from below-average (fire danger) to the point where we're right about at average now."
But average fire danger means forests will still burn.
With the Fourth of July holiday coming, local fire officials are asking both locals and visitors to take care with their campfires and any fireworks.
Colorado law already prohibits any fireworks that explode or fly. But, Cada said, even something as seemingly as benign as a sparkler can start a wildfire. Keeping a jar of water for burned-out sparklers is a good idea.
The unified call of the fire official is to leave fireworks to the professionals putting on three big shows in the valley this weekend — Sunday's Salute to the USA in Avon and Fourth of July displays in Vail and Gypsum.
Still, "there's always some people" who are going to play with their own fireworks, Gypsum Fire Protection District Chief Justin Kirkland said. That brings a danger of fire or personal injury.
Besides dowsing sparklers in water, it's also a good idea to keep a jug next to a campfire. But a little more work is needed at the end of an evening to make sure the fire is out.
"People will dump a gallon of water on a camp fire and walk away — that's not enough," Cada said. "You need to stir the ashes and turn the logs over to make sure they're out. Hold your hand over it to make sure it's not hot."
Kurt Vogel is new to the valley. He recently took the chief's job at the Eagle-based Greater Eagle Fire Protection District, coming to the valley from Sterling, in Colorado's northeastern corner.
While Vogel is new to the valley, he's no stranger to wildfire — brushfires on the prairie can, and do, burn thousands of acres. And the grasses that often start fires here are similar to the ones that can scorch square miles on the plains.
Vogel what he's seen in his few months in Eagle County has been a big change from working with mostly-volunteer departments in the northeastern part of the state.
"I've really been impressed with the partnerships with other agencies we have here," Vogel said. "It's nice to (share) the different experiences with the other chiefs."
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.