Wildfire risk is just a warm, windy day away for Roaring Fork Valley

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue fire chief Scott Thompson says long-term drought changes conditions

A helicopter flies over a burning wildfire that started from a lightning strike above Lower River Road in Old Snowmass on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

It’s still raining and snowing in the Roaring Fork Valley, but that’s not dousing experts’ concerns about wildfire threat later this year.

Roaring Fork Fire Protection District’s board of directors recently approved funding for “severity patrol” that will run from Memorial Day Weekend into September, according to fire chief Scott Thompson.

While snowpack has been running close to average this winter, a long-term drought has sucked the moisture level out of trees and vegetation and dried soils, Thompson said. It will take several years of above average moisture to reduce the risk of summer wildfires.

“I think we still have a huge threat in our valley,” Thompson said.

His instincts are typically spot on. He expressed concerns about wildfire risk less than one week before the Lake Christine Fire broke out on July 3, 2018, and threatened Basalt and El Jebel.

As part of this year’s precaution, four full-time summer workers will be hired specifically for the severity patrol. They will drive a fire truck around particularly susceptible portions of the sprawling district, such as Missouri Heights. The crew will also work with homeowners who want to “harden” their property to increase protection from wildfire, Thompson said.

Wildland firefighters standby as a helicopter brings a load of water to drop on a fire that broke out from a lightning strike near Lower River Road in Old Snowmass on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue has run the patrols intermittently over the years. This year is different because special funding was allocated, Thompson said.

The patrols have proven effective in the past because the firefighters have been able to respond to lightning strikes and other sources before fire has a chance to spread, he said.

Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District will also run the special patrols from roughly Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend, according to public information officer Jenny Cutright. The timing could be shortened by wet weather or lengthened by dry weather, she said. Carbondale has operated the summer patrols for multiple years running, Cutright said, and it will coordinate efforts with Roaring Fork since their boundaries meet.

Thompson said wildfires could materialize despite a decent snowpack. Dry conditions and warm spring winds can dry out vegetation quickly. Last spring and early summer was warm and dry.

“I was afraid we were going to lose a subdivision or even a town,” he said.

Spotty snowpack

Even with up to six inches of fresh snow at the ski areas Tuesday night, the snowpack around the Roaring Fork watershed is a mixed bag. Here are snowpack levels reported Wednesday morning from automated Snotel sites operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Independence Pass: 85% of median

Ivanhoe (Fryingpan): 117%

Kiln (Fryingpan): 98%

Schofield Pass (Crystal): 124%

McClure Pass (Crystal): 82%

The summer monsoon appeared later than usual in July and temporarily eased conditions. If this spring is wet and the monsoon shows up around July 4, Thompson said he will sleep better at night, but he’s not counting on getting his rest.

“July and August in Colorado, all bets are off,” Thompson said.

There’s ample evidence of how quickly conditions can change. The NCAR fire broke out near Boulder this week even with snow still scattered on the affected terrain. Another fire broke out outside the mountain town of Estes Park.

Every fire department in the Roaring Fork Valley offers its expertise to assess individual properties for risk and provides advice on how to lower potential for fire overtaking a home. Thompson said fires in Colorado, California and elsewhere show time and again that cedar fencing that abuts a house and even connects houses is a recipe for disaster. In addition, planting juniper bushes against a house is like storing 5-gallon cans of gas along a structure.

Thompson urged people to sign up for emergency alert services offered by the counties of the Roaring Fork Valley. That’s a key way to stay informed about evacuations for wildfires.

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue will also work with Eagle and Pitkin counties to provide reverse 911 calls to landlines and special notifications, similar to Amber Alerts for abducted or missing children, on cell phones.

Thompson said drought has extended fire season to six months in Colorado’s high country. The season starts in April and lasts until ample snowpack accumulates, typically in October or November.

“There’s no safe time,” he said. “We’re ready to have fires. I’m always uneasy.”