Fire outlook report holds grim news for Aspen area, western Colorado
Little relief expected from heat, drought; officials expecting long summer
Federal land managers in western Colorado received further bad news this week when a new report said “above normal significant fire risk” will extend through August this year.
Colorado and much of the West is currently facing a heat wave that is adding to the woes of long-term drought. Now, a Predictive Services team for federal agencies said little relief is expected from the monsoon this year, except in higher elevations of southwest Colorado. Therefore, the significant risk of wildfires is not expected to diminish until September.
The conditions prompted the White River National Forest to enact stage 1 fire restrictions starting Friday on its 2.3 million acres. The Bureau of Land Management also will enact stage 1 restrictions Friday for lands in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties.
As part of the restrictions, campfires will be allowed only in metal grates at developed campgrounds. It will be illegal for backcountry travelers to pull into a favored site and start a fire in a stone fire ring. (See related story for other restrictions.)
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said Wednesday he is urging his full-time staff to take time off as soon as possible because the looming fire threat likely means a long, busy summer when no one can go on leave.
“All of us in the fire management world are nervous right now,” Fitzwilliams said. “In my almost 12 years here now, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
Fitzwilliams said numerous factors weighed into the decision to go to stage 1 restrictions — low fuel moisture content in vegetation, super dry soils that instantly absorb the precious little precipitation that is falling and the grim long-range forecast.
The White River enacted stage 1 restrictions on the same weekend this year as in June 2018 as the fire risk climbed. About three weeks later, the Lake Christine Fire broke out at the Basalt shooting range when target shooters illegally used tracer ammo.
Conditions are a little misleading now in the Roaring Fork Valley because vegetation has greened up and belie the extent of the drought. Fitzwilliams said it is “not too weird” to have dry June in the mountains, but one of the problems is the low soil moisture levels.
“Everybody I talk to, ranchers and everyone, I hear the same thing — ‘I’ve never seen it this dry,’” Fitzwilliams said.
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows the western half of Pitkin County in extreme drought, the second worst classification. The higher-altitude eastern half of the county is considered in severe drought, one level better than extreme.
Most of Garfield County is in exceptional drought, the worst category. Eagle County is split between exceptional, extreme and severe drought.
In a June 11 article, the New York Times compiled maps for early June over 21 years from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Some level of drought isn’t unusual for western Colorado. In eight of 21 years, Pitkin County and surrounding areas have experienced some level of drought.
However, the western part of the state has been in the grips of drought three out of the past four years and two consecutive. The only worse streak was 2002 through 2004.
Fitzwilliams said the challenge is “getting people to understand this is the new normal.”
The combination of drought induced by climate change, decades of built-up fuels in national forests and the exploding growth in areas where forests meet civilization means wildfires will pose an ongoing threat, he said.
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