Despite rain in Aspen, area fire danger still remains
July 31, 2009
ASPEN – Aspen’s daily deluges aside, fire danger in the greater Roaring Fork Valley is high in some places, and storms of late have kept firefighters busy with lightning strikes around the region.
The Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit handles fire suppression for various jurisdictions from the Utah border to the Continental Divide, a 4.5 million-acre region that includes the White River National Forest surrounding Aspen and the valley. The unit attacked 11 fires sparked by lightning on Wednesday, said Don Scronek, the office’s dispatch center manager in Grand Junction.
Two of them were on Basalt Mountain, where Basalt firefighters extinguished one burning tree near a residence. A Fire Management Unit helicopter out of Rifle aided in the other by dropping two U.S. Forest Service firefighters onto the mountain. They hiked rugged terrain to put out a burning tree and surrounding scrub, according to Scott Thompson, Basalt fire chief.
“It was a single tree in a scree field, and Mother Nature would have put it out,” he said. “It certainly would have smoked for two or three days.”
But the smoking tree was visible from town, so residents kept calling 911 to report it. The agencies decided to deal with it, he said.
“We’ve actually been quite busy with initial attacks right now because of lightning,” said Ody Anderson, prescribed fire and fuels specialist for the Bureau of Land Management in Glenwood Springs. Wednesday’s lightning produced a fire in the Canyon Creek area on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs and other small fires in the White River forest, he said.
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The rains of the past week have been spotty and have not erased the effect of the close to three weeks of hot, dry windy weather that preceded the recent monsoons, he said.
Fire potential based on the condition of vegetation in the backcountry at present is slightly above average, putting fire danger in the moderate-to-high range in many places, Anderson said. A wildfire on BLM land near Rangely, in northwest Colorado, grew to 1,330 acres on Wednesday, he noted.
“It’s fire season in the West,” Scronek said. “Down here in the desert, we’re in high to very high fire danger.”
If the notion of fire danger comes as a surprise to Aspenites, well, it’s no surprise. Afternoon thunderstorms this week have produced brief but torrential downpours and hail. Between Sunday and Thursday morning, nearly an inch of rain fell at the city’s water plant, which tracks rainfall and temperature data. Each day’s measurement, taken at about 8 a.m., covers the preceding 24 hours.
On Sunday morning, the rain gauge held 0.37 inches – the highest precipitation total in a 24-hour period for the month so far.
With two days left in July, the water plant had tallied 2.01 inches of rainfall for the month; the average is 1.69 inches. Rain or a trace of rain fell on 13 days; the other 17 days (through Thursday morning) were dry, according to the water plant data.
In fact, fire danger had been mounting prior to this week’s rains. A week ago, the high in Aspen was 87 degrees – likely the hottest day for the month – and the valley had been hot and dry for an extended period.
This week’s wet spell will come to an end next week, according to Tim Mathewson, BLM meteorologist and fire weather program manager for the Rocky Mountain region.
Areas below 8,000 feet on the Western Slope will be the main concern as hotter, drier weather takes hold for five or six days, he said.
Overall, though, Colorado has not experienced significant fire danger this season, thanks in large part to a cold, rainy June – a time when vegetation typically dries out in Colorado.
“When all is said and done, we’re expecting this fire season to be below average,” Mathewson said.
Fire watchers will be keeping an eye on the lush vegetation produced by this summer’s rains, though,
“We have some grass that’s really, really tall right now. It’s going to start curing and turning brown,” Anderson said. “We’re going to have a big, big grass load when all this grass dries out.”
The fire danger will increase considerably if the monsoons dry up in late summer or fall, he said.
“If we get a week in the 80s and lightning, you guys will see fire,” Scronek said.