Fire risk on the rise in the Aspen area

Scott Condon | The Aspen Times
The acreage count at the Red Table fire has held at 20 acres with spotting still occurring within close proximity to the main fire. Aerial response began at 8 a.m. Thursday and the afternoon spike in activity prompted the use of helicopters dousing hot spots identified by ground forces.
Special to the Daily |

Warm, dry weather has sucked the moisture out of grasses, brush and trees at lower elevations of the Roaring Fork Valley and sent wildfire risk soaring.

“For this time of year, we’re as dry as we’ve been since 2002,” said David Boyd, spokesman for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Management Unit, which oversees firefighting on federal lands in an area that includes the Roaring Fork Valley.

Boyd cited 2002 because that was the summer of the Coal Seam Fire that burned numerous structures on the west edge of Glenwood Springs. That summer also saw Colorado’s largest wildfire in recorded history when the Hayman Fire ravaged an area 95 miles southwest of Denver.

Boyd said the dry conditions in the Roaring Fork Valley are entering the 90th percentile, meaning conditions are drier than 90 percent of summer days over 43 years of collected data.

“We’re entering that mark in all fuel types,” he said.

That includes grasses, brush and larger trees.

Federal firefighters monitor fuel moisture content on the Crown, a midvalley feature overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The Crown dominates the terrain between the Roaring Fork River and Mount Sopris from Emma to Prince Creek Valley outside of Carbondale.

Wet spring spurred fuels

Basalt Deputy Fire Chief Pete Bradshaw said the department expects a regional fire ban to be put in place in the near future if there is no change in the weather and conditions. There has been a red-flag warning for wildfire conditions on three of the past five days, he noted. A red flag occurs when there are high temperatures, low humidity and dry wind.

The rising wildfire risk demonstrates how quickly conditions can change. This spring was cool and wet, so the fire danger didn’t rise in late June and early July as usual, Boyd said. But now the spring weather has turned into a disadvantage.

“The prolonged cool, wet spring allowed everything to grow taller, faster, longer,” Bradshaw said. But now vegetation is drying out and converting to susceptible fuel.

Like Boyd, Bradshaw said the conditions are reminiscent of 2002.

There were six wildfires on public lands in Colorado as of Thursday. Three were started by lightning strikes, while one was confirmed to be started by a campfire that wasn’t properly doused, according to InciWeb, a public information system maintained by the federal agencies. The cause is under investigation for two other fires.

The closest fire to the Roaring Fork drainage is the Red Table Fire about 12 miles south of Eagle and north of the Fryingpan Valley. Federal firefighters are focused on stopping the spread of the blaze north to Sylvan Lake State Park.

As of mid-morning Thursday, the fire had burned slightly less than 20 acres, according to the White River National Forest. Kate Jerman, spokeswoman for the forest and the firefighting effort, said there are no existing plans to ban fires in the forest. The Forest Service is meeting with its partners — including the BLM and county officials — every Tuesday to assess conditions, she said.

Aspen has advantage of elevation

Fire conditions in the sprawling, 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest can vary widely. Elevation of terrain is one of the factors examined when enacting bans.

“Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is higher elevation, so that comes into play,” Jerman said.

Even if a ban isn’t imminent, the federal agencies are imploring people to be careful with fire. Smokey Bear’s message remains tried and true — make sure you put your campfire out before departing, Jerman said. Other safety tips shared by her and Boyd included avoid parking or idling a hot vehicle in grasses that could ignite. Any activity that produces a spark — from a chain saw to a weed whacker — should be handled with extreme care.

Boyd said significant precipitation isn’t expected next week in the Roaring Fork Valley but lightning could come into play. Firefighters are waiting for the monsoon season to materialize and bring enough afternoon rain showers to lower the fire risk.

The largest fire in Colorado is the Beaver Creek Fire, 24 miles northwest of Walden on the border with Wyoming. It’s burned nearly 21,000 acres so far and the perimeter is only 5 percent contained, according to InciWeb. The fire is approaching the original ranch house where Roaring Fork Valley resident Karl Hanlon grew up, according to his wife, Sheryl Barto. She said Hanlon was at the site this week but returned home to the valley because it was such a helpless feeling standing around at the fire. Residents and landowners weren’t allowed back in the area after an initial evacuation.

Barto said she was aware of another Roaring Fork Valley couple that had a family member evacuated because of the Cold Springs Fire outside of Nederland.

“A lot of (Roaring Fork Valley) people are affected by wildfire even though it’s not here,” Barto said.