FRISCO - When March faded as bright, warm and sunny as it came in this year, forecasters and firefighters set their hopes on April snow showers to reduce the high risk of wildfire heading into the summer.
But April has so far delivered only about 9 inches of snow, and it's not enough to stop what will likely be a dry summer to rival that of 2002, firefighters say.
"It's 2002 all over again as of right now," Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue deputy chief Jeff Berino said. "The April 1 90-day forecast did not look promising."
In dry years like this one, firefighters are on high alert, tracking the risk and possible behavior of a wildland fire based on weather conditions, on a daily basis.
That daily analysis helps fire departments generate the danger ratings posted on Smokey Bear signs around the county and determine when to implement restrictive measures like fire bans.
The color-coded wildfire danger rating system ranks the risk of a blaze on a five-level scale from low (green) up to extreme (red). The system normally gets up and running in early May, but this year, Smokey Bear signs bearing daily danger warnings appeared on roadsides in mid-April.
The ratings aren't arbitrary.
"We do use science to determine our levels," Red, White and Blue Fire District deputy chief Paul Kuhn said. "It's not like we make things up."
To set the ratings, fire officials analyze complex weather reports and sets of data describing current conditions created by a remote, automated weather station located at Soda Creek in Summit Cove.
"There is some science behind it," Berino said of the fire danger ratings. "We utilize computers a bit, and we also use some common sense like going out in the woods, snapping twigs and digging around in the dirt."
The Soda Creek station runs, unmanned, off a solar panel and uploads data to a computer system via satellite. The computer then generates the numbers that will ultimately help determine what color sign Smokey is holding each day.
But the weather isn't simple or straightforward. Firefighters have to take into account variations in conditions in different parts of the county as well as the next day's forecast.
Which is when the footwork comes into play.
"When we see something from the weather station that doesn't match with all of us around the county, we'll send some of our guys out to do field observations," Berino said.
The data cover a range of topics, from chance of precipitation, fuel moisture levels and lightning activity to what firefighters call the ignition component - a ranking between 1 and 100 that indicates, if 100 lit matches were dropped on the ground, how many would ignite a fire.
And it'll take more than the meager dose of moisture the county received this month to alter that data.
"We need sustained rain or, this time of year, sustained snow, to really tweak those numbers," Berino said. "The big old honking trees, a thunderstorm doesn't do a thing for them. We'd need 10 days of rain to enjoy the benefits."
When the fire danger ranking rises to high - indicated by a yellow sign in Smokey's arms - firefighters don their wildland gear, special pants and boots, so they are both better prepared should a call come in, and in a more alert frame of mind.
"It reinforces in everyone's mind that today is a day where the wildfire danger is high," Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue spokesman Steve Lipsher said. "Let's be conscientious of that."
Firefighters are as alert to weather conditions after a fire starts as they are before. They call in site-specific forecasts from the National Weather Service and actively monitor humidity levels. When the humidity drops to a certain level, known as the trigger point, the fire's activity can increase dramatically.
"In the end that makes putting the fire out much safer, the more you know about it," said firefighter Omid Rahimi, who was once assigned to check the humidity at the site of a fire every 15 minutes for eight hours.