Dry winter in parts of state rivals 2002 | SummitDaily.com

Dry winter in parts of state rivals 2002

A member of a Boulder-area fire crew works on putting out a five-acre fire in Sunshine Canyon, Monday, March 6, 2006, near Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, R.J. Sangosti)

DENVER ” Amid a warm and windy dry spell that rivals the disastrous fire year of 2002 in parts of Colorado, worried farmers and firefighters could get some relief this week when wetter weather is expected to blow into the state.

“This is as dry as I’ve seen it in the 20 years that I’ve been out here,” said Dean Jarrett, a rancher in Wray near the Nebraska border. “The wind this year seems to be a little more frequent,” said Jarrett, 44.

Wheat farmers are suffering too, said Don Ament, state agriculture commissioner.

“I’ve seen fields that have been completely blown out because of the wind,” he said.

The Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which manages federal firefighting efforts, rated the state’s fire danger as above average Monday.

“It’s definitely worse than last year,” spokesman Larry Helmerick said. “We’re so far above it that’s it’s pathetic.”

A storm system predicted to move into the state later this week should bring a mixture of rain and snow, state climatologist Roger Pielke Sr. It should help most of the state, he said, but especially the southeastern region and the Sangre de Cristo range in southwestern Colorado.

The Sangre de Cristos are experiencing dry conditions similar to 2002, Pielke said, when wildfires across Colorado scorched more than 215,000 acres and destroyed about 240 homes and cabins.

This year, the snowpack in southwestern Colorado ranges from 42 to 46 percent of the 30-year average. Statewide, the average is 88 percent, down from 101 percent a month ago.

The storm moving in this week could herald an extended wet period, said Pielke, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University.

“We don’t see the end of the pattern for a while,” he said. “Most of the state should benefit by this weather pattern.”

That is both good and bad news for firefighters, Helmerick said. Winds expected to accompany the storm could make it tougher to fight any fires that do break out.

Jarrett said the March storms that blow across his ranch usually pack a lot of wind and hail but not much useful precipitation. If rain does fall, he said, it doesn’t stay long because the winds evaporate it.

Ranchers are using a grazing rotation system, where sections of their pastures are in different growth stages, to reduce the fire threat.

But they won’t cut the grass down because the more desirable plants grow better in tall grass and the late summer heat will burn short grasses, he said.

Colorado has reported 41 fires ” all human-caused ” that have burned across 31,585 acres. Helmerick said 98 percent of those have been contained on the initial attack.

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