Snows lessen fire danger – but how much?

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Spring snows in the Aspen area already have dampened wildfire danger. The question, says one local fire official, is how long the benefits of the additional moisture will last.

“We still have, potentially, a good, wet spring ahead of us,” Jim Genung, prescribed fire and fuels specialist with the White River National Forest, said Tuesday. “The next four to six weeks will tell the tale.”

Genung was among several fire/emergency officials appearing before Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday to discuss the coming wildfire season.

By this time last year, the county already had seen its first wildfire. Winter snows fizzled in early March 2012 and above-normal temperatures, windy conditions and low humidity marked the weather pattern that followed pretty much straight through June. Firefighters scrambled April 6, 2012, to get a fire under control off Castle Creek Road after high winds toppled a tree onto a power line. Two acres burned. The blaze came two days after a controlled brush fire got out of control east of Aspen.

“This still has the potential to be an above-average season for wildfire,” according to Genung. “As bad as last year? I don’t think so.”

The water content of the snow in the Roaring Fork River basin stood at 94 percent of median Tuesday morning and some sites – Ivanhoe in the upper Fryingpan and North Lost Trail near Marble – had eclipsed 100 percent with the recent snowstorms. By Tuesday morning, the Aspen Water Department recorded 23.9 inches of snowfall so far this month at the water plant, up considerably from 12.6 inches for the entire month of April last year and higher than the average for April of 15.7 inches.

Ideally, the high-country snowpack will linger long enough and keep vegetation green enough to shorten the window of heightened fire danger that develops between the melting of the high-elevation snow and the start of monsoon season in the Colorado mountains, Genung said. The monsoons usually develop some time in July.

“The longer we can keep the green-up, the shorter that window is,” he said.

Local fire officials, however, aren’t taking any chances. Pitkin County remains in a drought, and the long-range forecast calls for drier-than-normal weather, even though snows have pounded the mountains this week and more precipitation is possible.

Tom Grady, county emergency management director, said local fire managers are bracing for the potential of an “outrageous fire season.” Recent snows might not do much to change the long-range prospects for fire danger, he told commissioners.

“Our local experts are saying our fuels are dry and they’re going to stay dry,” Grady said.

Fire districts from Aspen to Carbondale announced Monday that they would roll out an educational and outreach program, “Ready, Set, Go,” to help residents prepare for fire season.

“It’s a sharing of responsibility with property owners, homeowners and the agencies that respond to wildfires,” said Jerry Peetz, Basalt deputy fire chief.

In addition, Pitkin County is exploring what resources it has to help residents in unincorporated areas get fire assessments conducted at their properties and undertake mitigation measures to lessen the wildfire risk to their homes, said County Manager Jon Peacock. A broad, ongoing effort that involves the city of Aspen and the county is necessary to make a difference, added Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine.

“Doing a home here, a home there, they feel good, but they don’t really do much to fight a wildfire,” he said.

Areas of particular concern, Balentine said, include the Eastwood subdivision east of town, Red Mountain and, perhaps, Brush Creek Village.

In addition, the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department is exploring whether it can come up with the funding and manpower to send out a roving crew in a vehicle geared for fighting brush fires this season so it can jump on fires quickly, Balentine said. The Basalt and Carbondale fire departments took that approach last year, and it was effective, he noted.

“We’re going to plan to do a similar thing if necessary,” Balentine said.