Firefighters locally and across Colorado are on notice after the National Weather Service put up red flag warnings for much of the state, including parts of Summit County Monday.
The warnings came as a persistent dry spell pushed the local fire danger rating up into the “high” category over the weekend and changing winds brought a thick haze and the smell of smoke into Summit from the West Fork complex, a 76,000 acre blaze burning near Pagosa Springs in southern Colorado.
For now, local fire officials say the conditions aren’t exceptional for this time of year, but they do warrant caution.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue deputy chief Jeff Berino said. “We just can’t let our guard down and people need to stay vigilant.”
Summit County is still faring better than much of western Colorado, due to late-season moisture that left snow still on the high peaks. Fire fuels, or trees and vegetation, at higher elevations remain relative moist, and Monday the red flag warning was confined to the northern edge of the county, between Heeney and Ute Pass Road. Forecasters said it was likely to be expanded, however.
“The bottom line is that conditions are very dry and fuel moisture is low,” National Weather Service meteorologist Kyle Fredin said. “The state is becoming a tinderbox real quick, with the lack of moisture.”
The red flag warnings are put out when humidity drops and wind picks up, creating conditions that could cause fire behavior to become erratic and harder to attack. The alerts are primarily intended to be a warning to firefighters, but serve to put the public on notice as well. For Lake Dillon teams, it means a change of wardrobe into wildland gear.
“Our guys will be dressed to go out, that way they don’t have to waste time changing from one set of clothes to another,” Berino said.
Despite the conditions, U.S. Forest Service officials are holding off issuing fire bans in the Summit County area for now, thanks to the continuing moisture. They said they plan to continue to monitor conditions and reassess the possibility of fire restrictions next week.
“We’re in a better position here in Summit County and in the Dillon Ranger District,” district spokeswoman Jan Cutts said.
But the week is expected to bring more dry, breezy weather. The first real chance of precipitation in the High Country is on Thursday, and there could be rainfall throughout the weekend. Temperatures are expected to remain in the mid-70s throughout the week, according to NWS forecasts Monday.
Last summer, with fire danger climbing to “extreme,” the very top of the rating scale, the White River National Forest implemented a Stage 2 fire ban, prohibiting any activity in the forest that could spark a blaze, including smoking and campfires. The only higher level, Stage 3, would have closed the forest entirely.