Wildﬁre outlook slightly unpredictable for Vail Valley
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – The question about wildfires in and around Eagle County isn’t if they’re going to happen, it’s when they’re going to happen.
Ross Wilmore, the U.S. Forest Service’s fire management officer for the White River National Forest, said in a lodgepole pine ecosystem, fires are part of life.
Grass and brush throughout our local forests started to sprout earlier than normal this year, meaning there’s a chance they’ll also dry out early. Combine those fuels with the abundance of pine-beetle-killed trees, and forest fires are starting to look more and more likely.
Wilmore expects grasses to grow tall this summer, and when it’s warm and dry and those grasses dry out, there will be a lot of fuels ready to burn, he said.
Weather forecasts predict a warmer-than-average summer for the White River National Forest region, however precipitation levels are still somewhat unpredictable.
We’re coming out of an El Nino weather pattern and entering a La Nina pattern, which doesn’t necessarily predict much for the region because we’re in an area where things could go either above normal or below normal in terms of average precipitation.
“Colorado tends to be in the boundary of where the weather happens,” Wilmore said. “The El Nino condition ended quicker than prediction thought it would, which could mean the changes could be a little quicker and maybe more drastic.”
The changes could mean anything from drought to heavy rains and thunderstorms.
“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Wilmore said.
The National Interagency Fire Center puts out a monthly National Wildland Significant Fire Potential Outlook report on the first of the month. The June outlook shows that northwest Colorado has the conditions to support large fire activity this summer, including pine beetle-killed trees and plenty of ground fuels such as sagebrush and other shrubs.
The 2010 National Seasonal Assessment Workshop for the Western States and Alaska, an annual prediction done in late April, shows northwest Colorado as an “area of concern for above average fire potential in early to mid-July.”
Early July is when Colorado’s monsoon season is expected to begin, so many fire experts and responders are waiting to see whether the season will bring a lot of moisture.
“If we don’t get a pretty good monsoon flow, (the fire danger) is going to get pretty bad,” said Eric Lovgren, Eagle County’s wildfire mitigation specialist. “It will depend on the monsoon season.”
With an unpredictable monsoon season ahead, Wilmore is watching closely as things such as pinyon-juniper and sagebrush begin to lose their moisture content.
With a little wind, a fire could really move through those shrubs if they continue to dry out like this.
“It’s time to really start being careful,” Wilmore said. “We are at the beginning of fire season.”
Beetle-killed trees have been a hazard for some time, but now the problem is those trees are starting to fall. That can pose hazards for people hiking or camping, among other recreational activities, but it also presents a fuels problem.
“It’s not just the dead ones falling,” Wilmore said. “It’s hard to tell whether a tree’s going to come down or not. A lot of them are coming down without warning.”
Crews are working hard to prevent accidents near trailheads and campsites, but people really need to stay aware that trees could come down at any time, he said.
The problem facing fire experts now is mainly the waiting game for the monsoon season. Wilmore said it’s hard to predict what the season will bring until the season has already started.
“There’s another low pressure system coming in – it certainly doesn’t look very monsoony in the near term,” Wilmore said.
Tom Talbot, the Vail Fire Department’s fire fuels mitigation coordinator, said his crews are working seven days a week, 10 hours a day. They’re cutting down beetle-killed trees and assessing areas where crews have cut down dead trees in previous summers.
“We are improving our ability to fight fires and improving our ability to make the community safer from catastrophic fires,” Talbot said.
Talbot is keeping his eye on weather patterns, too, as dryer-than-normal summer predictions combined with grass and bushes are causing concerns.
The upcoming Fourth of July weekend is also a time when fire officials start to worry.
“Fireworks and dry grass and the forest is a really tough thing because they’re prone to starting fires,” Talbot said. “People need to maintain awareness of what fire danger is.”
There is no significant fire potential for the region for the next week, but conditions could change by Fourth of July weekend.
In the meantime, crews are working hard all over Eagle County to prepare for the worst. Wilmore said there are several mitigation projects going on, with a lot of work going on around the forest boundaries.
“We’re all trained up and ready,” Wilmore said. “We work closely with local fire departments and have been training with them and continue to train with them.”
Lovgren said there’s a big project on Belly Ache Ridge, near Wolcott, where crews are working on cutting trees on 20 to 30 acres around the homes there, protecting the one evacuation route out of that area for homeowners, he said.
The county has also been working with the Eagle River Fire Protection District on wildfire maps, as well as looking at the hazards on a neighborhood basis, Lovgren said.
Wilmore said crews are working hard, but the big picture is that they really haven’t treated that big of an area in the forest. Crews in Eagle and Summit counties have been training hard because they know fires are likely going to happen.
“To the degree that we can, we’ve been training and preparing for the fires we’re inevitably going to get,” Wilmore said. “We know it will happen. It’s a matter of dealing with it in a calm and professional manner.”
The public needs to be prepared to see some smoke in the air, though, Wilmore said. He said there might be fires where crews work hard to prevent them from coming into towns, but that’s not their only purpose. They might want some fires to burn and perform their function as part of the lodgepole ecosystem, he said.
“The safety hazard itself will impact our tactics,” Wilmore said.