For Summit County firefighters, summer is a daily gauging game of wildfire preparedness and prediction.
To keep fire crews engaged and the public aware of the fluctuating risk, fire officials produce a daily wildfire danger rating through the warmer months. This year, like last, that daily rating will be posted on Smokey Bear signs and the front page of the Summit Daily to help keep locals and visitors informed.
“Our fire danger is not static,” Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue spokesman Steve Lipsher said. “Here in the High Country in a very short period of time we can go from nice, green moist vegetation to an extreme fire hazard. We want to have people aware of that and cognizant of all of their actions that could lead to a wildfire.”
Risk that a wildfire could be ignited is rated daily on a five-tiered color-coded scale from low (green) to extreme (red). The danger rating will also sometimes be paired with red flag warnings based on specific weather conditions that make it not only more likely for a catastrophic wildfire to get started, but also more difficult for firefighters to battle a blaze.
“Red flag warnings can be a combination of a couple different things,” Lipsher said. “Predominantly (it means) high winds are forecast along with elevated fire danger. What that does is, it puts us and the public on high alert that conditions appear that day to be conducive to even small fires getting out of control.”
The fire danger ratings and red flag warnings aren’t arbitrary. They’re determined daily based on a number of factors, including local measurements, weather forecasts and the expertise of fire officials.
“There is some science behind it,” Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue deputy chief Jeff Berino told the Summit Daily last year. “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.”
Fire officials also 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. The 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 the daily fire danger rating.
Those ratings will soon appear on Smokey Bear signs. The signs are currently being renovated and will be launched in front of fire stations across Summit County soon.
A small graphic reflecting the day’s danger rating also appears on the top right corner of the front page of the Summit Daily News. The notification began printing on editions this week and will continue through the fire season.
A string of late snowstorms in April and the first part of May have helped keep the fire danger set to low, but officials say they expect the moisture only bought time and that the risk of wildfires will climb as the season continues.
Even during low danger conditions, it’s still possible to ignite a fire.
“We’ve had wildfires where there was snow on the ground where the fire was burning,” Lipsher said. “Our high alpine environment is arid by nature and we can have wildfires any time of year.”