Area fire danger rises with heat, winds | AspenTimes.com

Area fire danger rises with heat, winds

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Fire officials are urging caution in the greater Roaring Fork Valley as the Memorial Day weekend commences amid risky wildfire conditions.

The National Weather Service has issued a high-wind warning, in effect for Saturday in the mountains surrounding Aspen, as well as a red-flag fire warning. Strong winds, with gusts approaching 70 mph in some areas, along with low humidity mean dangerous fire conditions in most of western Colorado, according to the agency.

Heavy air tankers and thousands of firefighters were on standby Friday in Colorado as fire managers kept a close watch on high winds and hot temperatures at the start of the holiday weekend. Two heavy air tankers were taken to Grand Junction, the area where the fire danger is highest in the state, according to U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin.

Earlier this week, a welding spark was blamed for igniting a grass fire in the Willits area of Basalt, and a bullet ricochet set off a 2.8-acre wildfire outside Silt. Tinder-dry conditions, exacerbated by windy conditions, mean it won’t take much to start a wildfire, according to Jim Genung, prescribed fire and fuels specialist for the west zone of the White River National Forest.

“Somebody walks away from their campfire, and we could be off to the races,” he said.

The Bureau of Land Management enacted a fire ban Thursday for an area covering BLM lands in Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield and Mesa counties. Some portions of southern Routt County and northern portions of Delta and Montrose counties are also included in the restriction area.

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The ban means campfires are only allowed within designated fire grates in developed BLM campgrounds. No fires of any type, including charcoal, are allowed outside of developed areas. Fireworks and explosives are prohibited and there are also restrictions on smoking, welding and use of a torch, and use of an engine without a spark-arresting device.

Pitkin County also has a burn ban in place.

While the upper Roaring Fork Valley saw rain and snow Wednesday, little precipitation fell west of Glenwood Springs, Genung noted.

“From Glenwood west is pretty well set up for trouble,” he said.

White River National Forest officials recently indicated a fire ban in the national forest would likely follow shortly behind the BLM ban, but Wednesday’s weather may push that action back a bit, Genung said.

However, the light coating of fresh snow evident on the peaks and ski runs above Aspen Thursday morning won’t reverse the conditions produced by a subpar winter snowpack and higher-than-normal spring temperatures, he said.

The exceptionally warm spring – Aspen set an April record with a 75-degree day – has continued this month. Aspen tied a temperature record for May 22 with a high of 78, according to aspenweather.net.

In the backcountry, large dead and downed logs are showing record-low moisture content – levels typically seen in July, according to Genung, and the moisture level in the oak brush is diving before the month of June even begins. It typically peaks in early to mid-June, he said.

“All of the things that we’re tracking as far as fire danger are very similar to 2002,” he said.

That year, a spark from a portable saw was blamed for starting the Panorama Fire on Missouri Heights in the midvalley. That blaze burned two homes to the ground, damaged two others and charred about 1,500 acres.

janet@aspentimes.com

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