Fire danger delayed, not gone
SUMMIT COUNTY – This winter’s welcome snowfall hasn’t buried Colorado’s wildfire threat. But it will likely delay the start of wildfire season.
Last year, the first wildfires came in April and May and were followed quickly by some of the biggest blazes in the region’s history.
The amount of snow in the High Country is 242 percent of last year’s levels at the beginning of spring, or 1.5 times last year’s. But after three years of drought, a report issued Friday by the Rocky Mountain Area Predictive Services found the fire potential remains great in several portions of Colorado, including areas of Larimer and Routt counties, the Flat Tops Wilderness Area in the White River National Forest and near Rifle and Craig.
Local fire officials are also skeptical.
“When the snow melts and the wind comes up and the sun comes out, we’re back to where we were,” said Patti Maguire, the county’s wildfire mitigation officer. “Our fuels aren’t reduced. We still have mountain pine beetle, mistletoe infestations and a lot of heavy fuels that are ripe for fire.”
Maguire worked in the area in which the Hayman fire broke out last summer, and she sees conditions in Summit Count that are eerily similar to the forests there.
When she worked there, she said, “I used to think, “Gosh, if this burned down here, it would be a tremendous fire.’ I hoped I wouldn’t see it in my lifetime, but it happened.
“We have conditions around Summit County that scare me, too – the density, the age of the forest, the lack of fire in the past.”
The forest canopy is closed in much of Summit County, Maguire said, and that doesn’t allow sunlight to filter in and trigger new growth. That means the older growth is dry. She believes the county was lucky to escape a forest fire last summer.
Snake River Fire Chief Dave Parmley thinks it’s too early to predict the threat of wildfire.
“I would guess that by early May, we’ll begin to see what type of season we’re going to have,” he said. “In the Snake River Basin, and a lot of areas of the county, the ground seems well-saturated, but we still have potential to have a very dry and challenging season again.
“It can be kind of a tale of two extremes. We can have moisture and see a good green-up, and ground-level fuels come to life. Then we can have a drying pattern in the summer, and that type of vegetation cures out and poses a risk in itself.”
But Bob Leighty, fire management officer with the White River National Forest, doesn’t believe this season’s wildfire potential will be as great as it was last year.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that we can go help someone else out instead of having everybody come help us out,” he said. “At this elevation, I think we have a more-than-adequate snowpack. A lot of it’s going to be impacted by how quickly the snow comes off this spring, but it’s obviously not going to start as early or on such a large scale.
Another major factor: So far this spring, the high winds that accompanied last year’s runoff season haven’t come up.
“So we’re not losing as much snowpack to sublimation as we have over the past couple of springs – so far,” said Scott Hummer, a state water commissioner who works in the Blue River Basin.
Maguire and Parmley both encourage local homeowners to learn from last year’s fires and create defensible fire space around homes now.
“The time to do it is not when you’re under threat,” Parmley said. “Just as we’ve seen with Sept. 11, as time passes, people’s guards tend to go down, and the old adage kicks in, “I don’t think it will happen to me.’ But with the age of the forest and these fresh examples, people would be well-advised to have their guards up.”
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