Colorado’s ample snowpack may not dampen wildfire season |

Colorado’s ample snowpack may not dampen wildfire season

Steve Lynn
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. ” More snow this winter may not mean fewer fires this spring and summer.

If the forecast for a warmer than average spring and early summer is correct, Eagle County could experience more fires than average, fire officials said.

“Everybody’s saying we’re going to have a higher fire season than we’ve had in years past,” said Capt. Shaun Moore, a wildland fire specialist for the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District.

Longer winters, even with a weak snowpack, decrease fire danger because trees and plants absorb more moisture, Moore said. Despite above-average snowpack this year, this year’s shorter winter hasn’t given pinions, juniper, lodgepole pines, oak brush and cheat grass time to absorb enough moisture, Moore said.

That was one of several factors that fueled a wildfire outside of Carbondale last week, Moore said. The fire jumped over four-lane Highway 82.

“Due to the high winds we had (last Tuesday) and the low moisture, it was able to jump and keep going,” Moore said.

The signs of a lack of moisture already are showing in the Eagle Valley, he said.

In Eagle last week, Greater Eagle firefighters burned several piles of trees that were cut down last year to create a fire break in the Eby Creek neighborhood, Moore said.

“This time of year, those piles should not have burned as hot as they did,” Moore said.

Fires also may burn more intensely this year, fire officials said. Heavy snowfall has helped cheat grass grow taller, making it easier for flames to leap to trees if that grass dries out in the coming months.

Fires that reach trees, called “crown fires,” get out of control more quickly than the ones that stay closer to the ground, Moore said. They have to be fought with planes and helicopters dropping fire retardant.

“Then they’re really not going to do a whole lot of good because it’s going so fast they can’t keep up with it,” Moore said.

Vail may have less of a problem because it gets more precipitation and has less cheat grass than downvalley, said Chief Mark Miller of the Vail Fire Department.

Trees decimated by pine beetles could raise fire danger because they absorb even less moisture than other trees, fire officials said.

Miller said the town has removed plenty of pine-beetle-ridden trees near homes, and there are plans to remove more of those trees in the future, he said.

“They’re predicting a busier than average season,” said Miller, who had Vail firefighters complete an intense four-day wildland fire training course recently.

Greater Eagle firefighters will prepare by doing the same things they do every year: training and watching the weather, Moore said.

“The weather’s going to tell you a lot,” he said.

John Willson, deputy chief of operations for the Eagle River Fire Protection District, compared predicting whether there will be more fires this year to playing darts in the dark.

“We kind of rely on the weather man,” he said.

But if the weather man’s right?

“We’re ready for it,” he said.

Warmer temperatures and less precipitation than average are expected in April, May, June and possibly July, said Joe Ramey, meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

However, the National Weather Service also predicted below average snowfall this winter, he said. Beaver Creek Mountain had its snowiest season ever as the rest of the Vail Valley was pounded by snowstorm after snowstorm.

But the Weather Service predicted correctly a La Nina weather pattern, a dry fall and a wet December, January and February, he said. And La Nina generally brings drier weather during spring than in winter, he said.

So if Eagle County is lucky this year and the forecast is wrong, snow will linger due to cooler temperatures. That will give vegetation a chance to absorb more moisture, he said.

“To keep some snow in the mountains would be a really good thing,” he said.

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