Colorado is experiencing the third driest winter on record, raising fears of tough wildfire season

The Peak Two Fire as seen from Angler Mountain in Silverthorne on July 5. Colorado is seeing its third driest winter on record, raising fears of a brutal wildfire season.
John Mirro / Summit Daily Reader

Wildland firefighters are hard to spook. They are, after all, the men and women who charge into the hellmouth every summer, trudging through acrid, choking smoke to battle metal-melting infernos in our fields and forests. But at the bimonthly Summit County Wildfire Council meeting on Thursday it took just five words from a water guy to raise hackles among the ranks of Summit’s bravest: “Third driest winter on record.”

Troy Wineland, water commissioner for the Blue River Basin, offered that grim seasonal assessment to the Wildfire Council made up of representatives from the Summit County government, local fire protection districts, as well as the U.S. and Colorado Forest services. Wineland was invited by County Commissioner and council chair Dan Gibbs to give a report about water conditions to help with wildfire forecasting this summer.

Wineland started off his presentation by asking the council about their gut feeling on snowpack conditions. Responses around the room were universally negative, with the consensus being the snowpack seemed thinner, the mountains seemed barer, and April will be a make-or-break month for getting moisture on the ground.

Wineland affirmed the council’s assessment.

“What really stands out to me is how snow-bare places like Green Mountain are,” Wineland said. “It’s just bare. That really gives me pause.”

Wineland referred to the lack of snow on most slopes at lower elevations in the mountains. It is a troubling sign, he said, that there has been so little snow that bare ground seems to be showing everywhere in March, with no snowmelt stored up for when water use starts to really pick up.

In Summit, snowpack is at a relatively healthy 88 percent of average. However, Wineland noted that in southern Colorado, some places are seeing 60 to even 30 percent of average snowpack. That will mean more water usage downriver this summer, which affects water rights and availability in the northern and central parts of the state.

Wineland then presented this winter’s butcher’s bill by referring to a precipitation and temperature chart for Summit over the past few months.

“November, higher than average temperatures, lower than average precipitation,” Wineland said. “December, higher than average temperatures, lower than average precipitation. January, the same.”

February, on the other hand, saw cooler temperatures and higher precipitation, which offered some, but far from enough moisture to raise the “fuel-moisture index,” a tool that determines how much moisture is present in fuel sources — such as grass, brush and trees — to mitigate the chances of wildfire. The higher the fuel moisture, the less chance for wildfire. On the converse, lower- or no-fuel moisture may lead to larger, hotter forest fires burning out of control.

Wineland then dropped the sobering bombshell that offered the best insight into the danger presented by this upcoming wildfire season.

“2002 and 2012 were Colorado’s driest winters on record,” Wineland said, “and this will be Colorado’s third driest winter on record.”

Wineland complicated the picture by noting how Colorado was in a weather band between the warmer El Nino phenomena in the eastern Pacific ocean and the cooler La Nina; a period colloquially known as “La Nada.” During this unpredictable “neutral” period, it is extremely tough to properly forecast regional temperature and precipitation, and thus tougher to know how bad the wildfires will be this summer.

The council used the information Wineland provided to, as always, prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Matt Benedict, a captain in the Red, White, and Blue Fire District over in Breckenridge, urged the council members to go back to their districts and communities and start dealing with the reality of “receptive fuel beds” across the High Country.

“We’re starting to train firefighters early,” Benedict said. “We want to start talking to the public early. Please, please, talk to homeowners and ask them to start preparing their land with chipping and moisture control.”

Chipping involves gathering fuel sources, such as dead trees and logs, using curbside wood-chippers to break fuel down for uses off-site. The council agreed that chipping should begin in earnest, perhaps as soon as May with such dire snowpack conditions in the southern part of the state.

The council then reviewed the “armory” that will be deployed against wildfires this season, including a veritable air force with helicopters, tankers and even drones. Benedict noted that the Red, White, and Blue district took a year to get all the certifications needed to pilot six drones for aerial surveillance and fire assessment.

Newly hired emergency management director Brian Bovaird also reminded the council about a full-scale wildfire exercise in Silverthorne on June 21, and pitched the idea of having a community event after the exercise to entertain, educate and provide safety assurance to the community.

Regardless of the amount of preparation, resources will still be stretched and all members of the public are reminded to be vigilant of signs of wildfire, as well as doing their own part to prevent forest fires. Campfires need to be put out properly, no fireworks, no lit cigarette butts.

Something else that might help?

“Pray for rains in May and June,” Benedict offered.

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