Summer wildfire threat has Pitkin County, Aspen officials on high alert
Low snowpack, exceptional drought conditions “bad precursor for what is to come”
With the snowpack and precipitation levels in Pitkin County below last year at this time, local officials are bracing for an active wildfire season this summer.
“We’re the only county in the northwest region (of the state) that did not deal with a significant wildfire last summer,” Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County’s emergency manager, said Thursday. “We have no reason to believe our luck is going to hold. All the predictive services we use indicate that we’re going to have another bad wildfire season in Colorado.”
Currently, the snowpack in Pitkin County and most of the area west of the Continental Divide is at between 70% and 80% of the normal average, said Jeff Colton, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. Last year, the snowpack at the end of February stood at 118% of normal.
In addition, precipitation this winter measured at the Aspen-Pitkin County airport is 3.27 inches of liquid compared with 3.45 inches last year at this time, he said. The average for this time of year is 4.69 inches.
“We’re sitting in severe-to-extreme drought (in Pitkin County),” Colton said. “Out here toward Grand Junction west of Pitkin County is in exceptional drought, which is as high as the drought monitor goes. It’s a bad precursor for what is to come.”
Despite the larger than normal snowpack last year, it melted quickly and the monsoons never materialized, he said. Along with higher than normal temperatures, that led to about 2,300 wildfires in the Rocky Mountain region and more than 1 million acres burned, though those statistics are not yet available, Colton said.
This year, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is predicting that drought conditions will persist through June, traditionally the driest month of the year, he said. Also, the weather service is predicting a 65% chance that temperatures through June in Pitkin County will be above normal.
However, the climate news is not all bad, Colton said.
The Front Range, though, is looking far better than the Western Slope, he said. March in Denver was the second snowiest on record with 33.6 inches recorded.
“This winter, the Front Range did quite well,” Colton said.
On the Western Slope, the snowpack isn’t melting as quickly this year as last, he said, while the monsoon season prediction this year is not as bad as last year.
“The signals are showing better odds of a normal monsoon season,” Colton said.
While it’s still early, the monsoon season in Arizona and New Mexico is looking like it may be above normal, he said. That could benefit southern Colorado and southeastern Utah and may push a bit further north into the Aspen and Pitkin County area, Colton said. That would translate into greater wildfire danger north of Interstate 70.
But if the monsoon season is short, another wildfire danger peak could occur in late August and September, he said.
“We just don’t have a strong signal yet in western Colorado for the monsoons,” Colton said. “We have to rely on the Southwest predictions.”
All of that translates into a big wildfire question mark for local officials.
“From all indications, it’s another potentially dangerous wildfire season,” Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said. “We’re taking it very seriously this year.”
The Aspen Fire Department again plans to have two firefighters in a wildfire truck during the day this summer ready to respond quickly to any reports of a wildfire, he said.
Residents concerned about wildfire risk to property can go to http://www.aspenfire.com, plug in their address and get a better idea of that risk, Balentine said. They can also call the department or sign up online to have fire officials come out in person and do a risk assessment.
“We’re getting a lot of people requesting assessments,” he said. “It’s more than usual this year, so that’s encouraging.”
MacDonald suggested going to http://www.pitkinwildfire.com — which features tips on how to protect property and people from wildfire in English and Spanish — for information on how to create defensible space and use fire resistant materials. Residents also should sign up for the Pitkin Alert system, which will keep residents informed of emergency situations, she said.
“The most important thing is to have an evacuation plan,” MacDonald said. “Even if you mitigate the risk, you can’t stop a wildfire when it’s dry, windy and extended drought conditions. We need everyone to be ready to evacuate their homes.”
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