Firefighters brace for Fourth amid high temperatures, dry forests
DENVER – As soaring temperatures and dry storms boost the risk of wildfires in Colorado, state and federal land managers are bracing for what could be a hectic July Fourth holiday.”We’re becoming close to all-time highs in terms of actual fire dangers,” said Bill Hahnenberg, a management officer for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, which coordinates firefighting in much of western Colorado.”We’ve seen a fairly significant increase in activity over the past week or so,” he said. “If it keeps up, it could get worse.”Forecasts call for temperatures to reach the mid-80s in the mountains early next week, the high 90s along the Front Range and 100 or higher on the Eastern Plains and Western Slope.Low humidity, lightning and fireworks could make things worse, authorities said.”This time of year, with Fourth of July week upon us, the human-caused risk is definitely high,” Hahnenberg said. Colorado usually doesn’t have many wildfires ignited by humans, “but with this kind of potential weather, a few incidences can be a really big deal,” he said.Because the Fourth falls on Wednesday, fewer people may go camping. But Steve Bradley of Denver, who does plan to go, said that lower numbers doesn’t necessarily mean the threat is scaled back.”I’ve put out a lot of fires in the back country,” Bradley said. “I’ll just be walking from my campsite, see some smoke, and have to put out a fire that someone just left there.”To deal with the potential fire threat, air tankers, fire trucks, ground crews and other resources have been positioned in areas around the state where the danger is highest.Garfield, Mesa and Pitkin counties have placed restrictions on outdoor fires, and Summit County will impose its own restrictions on June 30.The Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, the San Juan National Forest and Montezuma are also preparing restrictions.Firefighters have already faced at least three significant blazes west of the Continental Divide since last week.Three homes were destroyed and a fourth was damaged by a fire in Mesa. A wildfire near New Castle triggered evacuations of 90 homes, but none burned.A fire near Granby this week forced the evacuation of about 300 people from the YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch, but no building damage was reported.Although Colorado east of the Divide got more snow last winter than the Western Slope, the Front Range is also at risk, authorities said.The moisture encouraged trees, brush and grass to grow. “As that dries out it becomes a source of fuel for grass fires,” said state climatologist Nolan Doesken.Forests almost always dry out in the midsummer months, he said.As the summer wears on, the fire risk spreads, said Janelle Smith of the U.S. Forest Service.”What will happen as the hot and dry weather persists, the fire danger will just begin to move up in elevation,” she said. “So although maybe the high country areas aren’t experiencing extreme fire conditions right now, those conditions will change day-by-day.”
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