Valley wildfire threat soars to 2002 levels
The timber that is the main fuel for wildfires in the Roaring Fork Valley has become as dry as it was during the drought- and fire-plagued summer of 2002, according to a fire chief for federal agencies in the area.Frankie Romero of the Upper Colorado Interagency Fire Management Unit said conditions are “considerably drier” than typically found at this time of year due to hot, dry weather over the last two weeks and cumulative effects of drought.”In 2002 it was exactly what we have today,” he said of fuel moisture-content levels in dead timber.The moisture content is measured in dead wood that’s 3 inches in diameter to gauge the effects of the ongoing drought and fire potential, Romero explained. When a piece of wood is totally saturated, it holds about 30 percent of its dry weight.The fuel moisture-content level normally falls within a range of between 13 percent and 17 percent during dry summer months, according to Romero. As of Sunday, the fuel moisture content in timber was only 10 percent, he said.Wet weather in April and June wasn’t enough to offset dry conditions that have persisted for the last three or four years, Romero said. The heavy timber, referred to by firefighters as 1,000-hour fuels, takes a long time to saturate once it dries out.”Our fuels are dry. We’re still seeing the effects of a drought,” said Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson.A ban on open fires is in effect in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages generally higher terrain, dropped its ban in the White River National Forest after the wet June. But conditions are getting dry even at high elevations.”It’s a little bit crunchy up top,” said Romero.Thompson said many people didn’t understand why there was a fire ban when conditions appeared so lush earlier this summer. What they didn’t understand, he said, is recovery from a drought takes twice as long as the drought itself.Firefighters from Basalt, Carbondale and federal agencies got a firsthand look last week at dry conditions during the High Aspen fire in the high ground above Missouri Heights. Romero said it was a “remarkable thing” to see the fire burn through a stand of aspen trees at the 7,500-foot level. Usually aspen trees are regarded as fire breaks in wildfires, Thompson said.The High Aspen fire didn’t burn any structures and was confined to under 100 acres with the help of a helicopter, air tankers and ground crews.Although conditions weren’t as dry this spring and summer as they were the prior two years, National Weather Service data shows Aspen is still experiencing a drier-than-usual year. Precipitation is down 40 percent from January through July.From 1971 through 2000, Aspen averaged almost 12 inches of precipitation for the first seven months of the year. This year there has been only 7.21 inches through July, according to National Weather Service data.April and June were wetter than average, explaining the wonderfully green condition of the vegetation in the valley and the abundance of wildflowers in the higher country. May and July were below average for precipitation.Brian Avery, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said western Colorado didn’t experience a very wet monsoon season this summer, when moisture streams up out of the Gulf of Mexico. The monsoon often hits in early or mid-July and lasts into August.Although parts of western Colorado have reaped average levels of rain this summer, the dry conditions persist, Avery noted. “Near normal precipitation isn’t going to get us out of the drought,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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