Wildland fire danger forecast to be above normal for Aspen-area national forest in June
Despite recent precipitation, public land managers and firefighters in the Roaring Fork Valley are bracing for the possibility of greater wildland fire risk earlier than usual this summer.
The Predictive Services branch of the National Interagency Fire Center issued a report Tuesday forecasting significant wildland fire potential spreading throughout Colorado in June, including the Roaring Fork Valley. Fire conditions for June are deemed “above normal” for the lower two-thirds of the Colorado mountains.
“I think it’s a crapshoot on the White River based on the projections we’ve seen,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
Western and southwest Colorado, as well as the south-central mountains, were rated above normal for significant wildland fire potential in May.
The Bureau of Management put Stage I fire restrictions in place in southwestern Colorado on Tuesday. That bans campfires, outdoor smoking and fireworks on lands it administers. The U.S. Forest Service’s air tanker base in Durango was fully staffed Tuesday, two weeks earlier than normal.
Fitzwilliams said snow and rain over the past three or four weeks reduced the wildland fire potential for the White River forest — for now. It’s a fluid situation that all depends on the precipitation amounts through the summer.
Predictive Services said rain and snow in the mountains in early May will help vegetation green up, but provide little relief to long-term drought.
The U.S. Drought Monitor released April 26 shows most of Pitkin County in the moderate drought category, with the western edge in severe drought and eastern tip considered abnormally dry.
The good news is the southwest monsoon that usually kicks in during July and stretches into August is expected to moderate the wildland fire potential throughout Colorado starting in July, according to Predictive Service’s report.
“That’s usually what saves our bacon,” said Scott Thompson, the fire chief for the Basalt and Snowmass Village fire departments.
Federal land managers and their firefighting arm, the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, will confer with fire chiefs and emergency management officials in the towns around the White River National Forest on a weekly basis starting in about three weeks. Thompson said they will focus on what’s known as the Energy Release Component, which is an index on how hot a fire could burn. It is a science-based approach that looks at moisture content in live and dead fuels, weather conditions and outlook.
When that index hits 90 percent and no relief appears on the horizon, officials implement fire restrictions.
“We don’t just shoot from the hip. We use the science of the ERC to do this,” Thompson said.
Coordination between the counties and federal land managers is critical. It can be too confusing if there are different rules on private and public lands.
“We try to set it up so that when we go into fire restrictions, everybody does it at once,” Thompson said.
Fitzwilliams said conditions had been setting up to be as bad or worse than in 2012, when fire restrictions were put in place in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, as well as on BLM and national forest lands surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley in early June. Rain and snow since then have eased concerns this year.
While 2012 was considered the driest year in a decade, 2002 was infamous for the number and intensity of wildland fires in Colorado. The Hayman fire 95 miles southwest of Denver became the state’s largest wildlife after charring 138,000 acres, destroying 133 homes and costing about $39 million to suppress, according to a federal study.
The Coal Seam fire destroyed 24 homes and a total of 32 structures in West Glenwood Springs that summer.
Both Fitzwilliams and Thompson credited a storm that brought rain and snowfall April 7 and 8 this year for turning the trend around. Now, the need for restrictions rests with the weather.
“It’s going to be a week-by-week call,” Fitzwilliams said. “We won’t shy away from fire restrictions if it warrants it.”
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Studies by Colorado Parks and Wildlife show the survival of elk calves in the Roaring Fork Valley has dropped about 33 percent in the last decade. White River National Forest officials said they need to act to try to reserve that trend. They are seeking public comment on their plan.