Colorado wildfire season touches off with 637-acre northwestern blaze | SummitDaily.com

Colorado wildfire season touches off with 637-acre northwestern blaze

The first large-scale blaze of the summer took off Saturday in northwestern Colorado to mark the official start of the state's wildfire season.

Red flag conditions, meaning it's hot, dry and there's a presence of strong wind gusts, helped spread a fire about 20 miles southwest of the town of Meeker in Rio Blanco County. The Hunter Fire, believed to have been caused by lighting a few days prior, devoured more than 637 acres of Bureau of Land Management property by Sunday afternoon and attracted scores of firefighters, heavy wildland tankers and a helicopter to the area.

"This fire season is upon us, or pretty close," said David Boyd, spokesman for BLM's Northwest Colorado District. "It doesn't look like it's going to be one of those critical years where Colorado gets a lot of large fires, but we'll still get some. It kind of depends on the day and the conditions and the source of the ignition."

In a typical wildfire year, the state's Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit — stretching from the Continental Divide to Utah along the Interstate 70 corridor — sees approximately 200 incidents. The 6.7-plus million-acre zone includes all of Summit County, as well as Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa beyond Grand Junction up until the state line.

At the beginning of June, forecasters at the National Interagency Fire Center predicted lower than normal wildfire activity this summer for a region that includes Colorado, Wyoming and parts of South Dakota due to cooler temperatures and the significant May snowpack. Storms on the Western Slope act as a double-edged sword, however, because the late-season frost killed vegetation and created additional fuel that could spark.

The added precipitation in the High Country is almost always welcomed, but just a few weeks after those double-digit snowfalls, the county's fire districts have flipped fire warning signage from low to moderate danger.

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"People shouldn't be surprised," said Steve Lipsher, spokesman for Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue. "Without regular and frequent moisture, the vegetation dries out and the fire danger rises. It's a natural progression and you can see it coming when there's only a week without rain."

Those federal projections — which expect about 135,000 acres of land to go up in smoke within that Colorado-Wyoming-South Dakota region, compared to the historic average of 220,000 acres — are music to firefighters' ears. But it doesn't mean they're assuming the forecasts are spot on, nor delaying going through the usual preparations in case they need to quickly mobilize and respond.

"I don't put a lot of stock in widespread, long-range forecasts," said Lipsher. "We live in a semi-arid environment and fire is a part of our ecosystem. It's just an intrinsic natural hazard that we have here."

As part of local mitigation efforts for residents who live in Summit County's wildland-urban interface, the area's fire districts encourage creating enough defensible space from potential flare-ups around homes. The techniques have in the past proven the difference between structures going untouched and others being engulfed in the blink of an eye.

A list of general rules for defensible space include creating a 10-foot ring of distance between the structure and any flammable vegetation, avoiding an unbroken chain of shrubs, trees and grasses 30 feet out, and thinning forest canopy as far out as 100 feet so firefighters have enough room to dig effective fire lines when possible. Once more, homeowners can also receive a free review from trained professionals by calling one of the three fire districts and scheduling an appointment.

The Hunter Fire, which by Sunday afternoon had the 20-person hotshot crew based out of Monument, Colorado's Pike National Forest, reporting to assist and get the blaze to 40 percent containment, wasn't the only fire to erupt in northwestern Colorado by Saturday. The 65-acre Temple Fire about 25 miles west of Craig and 55-acre Cross Fire outside of Dinosaur National Monument — both in Moffat County — were also thought to have started under similar natural circumstances as the much larger-scale Hunter wildfire.

Each of those brush fires reached 60 percent containment on Sunday after 40 firefighters arrived for full suppression efforts on the Temple. The Cross Fire is located in a much more remote, difficult to reach area so was being actively monitored. Because it did not show signs of growing, it will be allowed to run its course and burn out.

No campfire bans or other restrictions are currently in place within that I-70 corridor protection region. But as officials say often happens each summer with drier conditions and the approach of the Fourth of July in the desert and other susceptible areas, the need for people to be fire aware and conscious will remain crucial now through the beginning of next winter.

"Folks need to be careful," said Boyd. "The good moisture year in the spring, that's helping for right now. That should help higher elevations stay pretty mellow, but then looking at the lower elevations with the junipers and sagebrush, that type of country burns every year."

Schedule a Free Home Defensible Space Review Today:

Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue: 970-262-5209

Red, White & Blue Fire District: 970-453-2474

Copper Mountain Fire Department: 970-968-2300 ext. 831