Aspen-area fire officials bank on rain to ease conditions nearly as dry as 2018

Jeremy Parker, left, paddles his daughter Presley Parker, 3, and dog Derby through the Northstar Nature Preserve in Aspen on Monday, July 13, 2020. Paddlers said that although the water level seemed low compared to earlier in the summer, there was still a good flow. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times


January 1.77 inches

February 2.44

March 1.83

April 2.38

May 1.45

June 1.46

Total 11.33

Average 11.53

The return of afternoon monsoons to the Roaring Fork Valley cannot come quick enough for outdoor enthusiasts hitting dusty trails, gardeners coaxing plants along or especially fire chiefs fearing wildfires.

The monsoons typically appear in late June and continue into September, bringing frequent afternoon showers. They have been slow to appear this summer, but that might be about to change.

The National Weather Service expects a 20% to 40% chance of showers and thunderstorms starting later this week and continuing each day for at least the next week in the Colorado mountains, according to Jeff Colton, a warning coordination meteorologist with the NWS office in Grand Junction. He cautioned against expecting copious amounts of moisture.

“They are not going to be soakers by any means,” Colton said Monday.

In addition, rain will be hit-or-miss for any given area, Colton said, and some storms could produce more lightning than rain. However, at least the weather pattern is favorable for allowing moisture to sneak up from the Gulf of Mexico after a dry start to summer, he said.

The forecast is welcome news to Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson. The outlook has changed for the better in just the past week, he said.

The improved forecast plus data such as moisture content in living vegetation, known as live fuels for firefighters, will allow officials in the region from adopting more restrict fire rules, at least for now, Thompson said.

Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties as well as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in the region are currently in stage one restrictions. That prohibits campfires outside of developed recreation areas. All fireworks are banned.

“Most people are in agreement we’re going to stay in stage one,” Thompson said. He doesn’t foresee that changing any time soon even with a favorable forecast.

The fuel moisture level in live fuels isn’t as bad as it was July 3, 2018, when the Lake Christine Fire broke out in Basalt, Thompson said. Fuel moisture levels are an important factor considered by fire managers when assessing risk.

“They’re in inching down,” Thompson said of the fuel moisture levels. “It’s getting to where it’s concerning but it’s not as bad as in 2018.”

Colton said the rain that is forecast isn’t likely to break the grip of a drought affecting all of Colorado. The U.S. Drought Monitor issued by federal weather agencies July 9 shows all of Pitkin County in moderate drought and the extreme western side of the county in severe drought.

The Drought Monitor stressed that the classification is based on broad-scale conditions and that local conditions may vary.

Aspen has managed to stay close to the annual average for precipitation through June, according to records kept at the Aspen Water Department’s plant in Maroon Creek Valley. May was below average but June was slightly above average, thanks in large part to nearly 5 inches of snow June 9 (see related fact box).

“The last time we received any measurable snowfall in June at the Water Treatment Plant was back in 2005 when 0.75 inches was recorded,” the water department’s report for the month said.

Meteorologist Colton said the snowpack last winter was close to normal, but a lack of snowfall in late winter and an extended period of dry winds starting in May quickly ate up the snowpack. The same low pressure in the Pacific Northwest that has prevented monsoonal moisture to form for Colorado also is responsible for the drying winds, he said.

The dry winds, quickly disappearing snowpack and spotty rainfall have sapped the moisture from the ground. Richmond Ridge Road, which typically harbors massive mud puddles at this time of year, was bone dry Saturday. Trails throughout the valley have been pulverized to dust.

Aspen Global Change Institute has installed 10 field stations around the Roaring Fork Valley that measure ground moisture at various depths as well as precipitation and air temperature.

Sky Mountain Park in the hills above the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82 is showing soil moisture at the 8-inch depth at about 17% compared to about 14% at this time in 2018.

However, farther downvalley, the soil moisture is drier in some spots than in 2018. The soil moisture at Spring Valley near the Colorado Mountain College campus is at about 12% compared to 17% in 2018.

At Glenwood Springs, the average daily soil moisture at eight-inch depth is about 14 percent, the same as in 2018.

“It’s telling me that conditions are pretty dry,” said Elise Osenga, community science manager for Aspen Global Change Institute.