Fire in the forecast
Wildfire season starts to take shape

SideStory: Building a buffer: Numerous thinning projects completed


Despite an unusually wet spring, Southwest Colorado fire managers are currently bracing themselves for what may be a serious wildfire season. Unless the annual monsoon cycle begins, fire restrictions could go into effect as early as next week. If the worst case scenario does hit, numerous thinning efforts, like on Animas Mountain (pictured), should provide a buffer between fires and local communities./Photo by Steve Eginoire

by Will Sands

Durango is on track for a smoky future. Local wildfire managers recently peered into their crystal balls, and wildfir­e season may be right around the corner if the current dry spell does not break. With the mercury heading for the 90-degree mark this weekend and no precipitation anywhere in the long-term forecast, restrictions on burning could hit the region any day.

The news may come as a surprise for Durangoans, some of whom were wielding their snow shovels as recently as a month ago. However, Southwest Colorado is on the seam of a textbook La Niña pattern with wet and snowy weather to the north and dry and smoky weather to the south.

“This year has been a classic La Niña, and Southern Colorado is right on the border,” explained Craig Goodell, San Juan Public Lands Fire Mitigation Specialist. “Our lower elevations are basically in the

same range as New Mexico and very dry right now. However, the local high country is over the edge and has gotten a ton of snow and precipitation.”

La Niña is currently wreaking havoc on New Mexico and Arizona. The Wallow Fire, burning along the two states’ borders has exceeded 500,000 acres in size, earned honors as the state’s largest blaze ever and is still only partly contained. In the case of New Mexico, literally every corner of the state is on fire with large blazes near Carlsbad Caverns in the south, in the White Mountains in the West, the Pecos Wilderness in the East and near the town of Raton in the north. Fire managers fear that this trend may creep north of the border in coming weeks, and a strong fire season will find its way into Southwest Colorado.

“Fire danger is high in the lower elevations and very high on windy days, which is actually fairly normal for this time of the year,” Goodell said. “The thing that’s abnormal is that our relative humidity is very low as a result of the drought to the south of us. The lack of humidity is dessicating the green vegetation at a rapid rate. If that continues, the fire danger is going to rise.

Currently, fire danger is rated as “high” at mid elevations and “very high” at lower elevations, including Mesa Verde National Park, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservations. The greatest risk for significant fire activity is in piñon/juniper woodlands and lower elevation ponderosa pine forests. With more dry, hot and windy conditions in the 10-day forecast, those levels are expected to spike.

“I think it’s safe to say that all of the fire authorities in Southwest Colorado are really starting to pay attention to the conditions that are developing,” Director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management Butch

y heading for the 90-degree mark this weekend and no precipitation anywhere in the long-term forecast, restrictions on burning could hit the region any day.

The news may come as a surprise for Durangoans, some of whom were wielding their snow shovels as recently as a month ago. However, Southwest Colorado is on the seam of a textbook La Niña pattern with wet and snowy weather to the north and dry and smoky weather to the south.

“This year has been a classic La Niña, and Southern Colorado is right on the border,” explained Craig Goodell, San Juan Public Lands Fire Mitigation Specialist. “Our lower elevations are basically in the same range as New Mexico and very dry right now. However, the local high country is over the edge and has gotten a ton of snow and precipitation.”

La Niña is currently wreaking havoc on New Mexico and Arizona. The Wallow Fire, burning along the two states’ borders has exceeded 500,000 acres in size, earned honors as the state’s largest blaze ever and is still only partly contained. In the case of New Mexico, literally every corner of the state is on fire with large blazes near Carlsbad Caverns in the south, in the White Mountains in the West, the Pecos Wilderness in the East and near the town of Raton in the north. Fire managers fear that this trend may creep north of the border in coming weeks, and a strong fire season will find its way into Southwest Colorado.

“Fire danger is high in the lower elevations and very high on windy days, which is actually fairly normal for this time of the year,” Goodell said. “The thing that’s4 abnormal is that our relative humidity is very low as a result of the drought to the south of us. The lack of humidity is dessicating the green vegetation at a rapid rate. If that continues, the fire danger is going to rise.

Currently, fire danger is rated as “high” at mid elevations and “very high” at lower elevations, including Mesa Verde National Park, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservations. The greatest risk for significant fire activity is in piñon/juniper woodlands and lower elevation ponderosa pine forests. With more dry, hot and windy conditions in the 10-day forecast, those levels are expected to spike.

“I think it’s safe to say that all of the fire authorities in Southwest Colorado are really starting to pay attention to the conditions that are developing,” Director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management Butch Knowlton said. “I would anticipate that we will see fire restrictions imposed shortly, particularly after the high temperatures that are forecast for later this week.”

Last week, local fire crews got a small taste of what could be in store for the region.

A combined San Juan Public Lands/Mesa Verde National Park quenched the quarter-acre Glade Canyon Fire, 8 miles east of Dove Creek, and quickly got the upper hand on the Dolores River Fire nearby. Both blazes are believed to have been triggered by lightning. Meanwhile, many local firefighters and resources are currently fighting wildfires south of the border.

“We’ve been sending quite a few folks down to assist in New Mexico and Arizona,” Goodell said. “However, we are drawn down to a level that we think is appropriate. If our fire season increases, we’ll pull those resources back up into Colorado.”

If the local wildfire season sparks to life, Knowlton said that he hopes it coincides with a change in conditions in New Mexico and Arizona. “As our conditions continue to dry out and worsen, I’m sure some of those firefighters will have to come home,” he said. “We really feel sorry for the people of New Mexico and Arizona. They’re in the midst of a drought like we experienced in 2002. We only hope that it won’t be a juggling act, trying to fight fires both here and there.”

In the meantime, Knowlton urged local residents to do their part to avoid human-triggered fires. “People need to be incredibly cautious right now,” he said. “Anytime you have an open fire, it needs to be manned and kept under control. Parking vehicles out in deep grass can trigger fires. And with the Fourth of July coming up, fireworks are a big problem.”

Both Knowlton and Goodell hope that Mother Nature rides to the rescue of the greater Southwest in coming weeks. The month of June is traditionally dry in the region, then the afternoon monsoon cycle usually builds and restores moisture to the landscape. Fire managers are currently watching the sky and the long-term weather outlook.

“We usually get into our fire season for a few weeks before the monsoons show up and alleviate the danger,” Goodell said. “But the timing will be key this year. The systems that drive the monsoons aren’t developing yet, and we’re just sitting back and keeping our fingers crossed.”

Knowlton has heard a full range of predictions for the summer monsoon cycle – ranging from starting next week to skipping the Southwest completely this year. However, he said that he knows better than to try to guess the weather.

“All we can do is wake up tomorrow and see what in the hell’s going to happen,” he said.

 

 

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