Summertime rainfall more than double what fell in some areas of Summit County last year
While wildfires burned their way across the state last year — including the Buffalo Mountain Fire emergency workers were busy fighting in Summit County — the county’s fire services have enjoyed a much quieter summer this year, in no small part due to a substantial increase in precipitation.
“It’s been a 180 from last year, obviously,” Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District Chief Jim Keating said. “A lot of times you start out the spring and summer seasons with moisture, and the tap seems to turn off around the Fourth of July.
“This year, we got rain from the beginning pretty much all the way through. It’s about the time we think we’d normally be moving to moderate with things drying out a little bit, which only takes a few days with the temperatures moving up. But we seem to have gotten moisture at the right times.”
On Sunday, the fire districts moved the county’s wildfire danger meter from moderate to low, a stark difference from last year when firefighters were on constant high alert here at home and having to aid other departments with blazes around the state. Officials say the difference has been considerable.
Treste Huse, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder, said that from May through July last year, Summit County was getting between 25% and 70% of normal precipitation. Additionally, the northernmost three-quarters of the county were in “extreme” drought conditions, while the southern quarter was in a “severe” drought.
This year, Huse said the county has gotten between 90% and 110% of normal precipitation, depending on the area, and rain and snow have managed to hold off drought conditions.
“In 2018 at this time, most of the county was in an extreme drought, and the rest was severe,” Huse said. “But by March 5, you were only in a moderate drought, and by March 12 the drought was gone. So it’s definitely been much better this year than last year.”
While a heavy snowfall winter certainly contributed to the current conditions, precipitation numbers also have looked better this summer, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For the late spring and summer months (May through July), NOAA recorded an average of 1.51 inches of precipitation per month in Dillon compared with 0.62 inches last year. During the same months in Breckenridge, the administration recorded an average of 1.81 inches a month, compared with 1.13 inches in 2018.
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Huse called the year-to-date fluctuations normal and said the dramatic change may be due to a shift from La Niña to El Niño conditions. Huse said that even though Colorado is far from the coast, the state is still susceptible to variations in water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. La Niña conditions faded out last year as drought conditions took hold across Colorado, but we’ve been in El Niño conditions since September — uncharacteristically warm water temperatures near the equator — which Huse said typically brings increased precipitation to areas like Summit County.
Despite plenty of rainfall this summer, Keating said it’s important not to let your guard down against the dangers of fire season, especially after the start of autumn. Keating noted that because of all the precipitation, plants and grasses have experienced “tremendous” growth compared with last year. Once fall kicks in and leaves and plants begin to die, there potentially could be dry ground cover susceptible to catching fire. The major factor is the amount of time between when foliage begins to dry and when we start to see snowfall, Keating said.
Keating’s concerns of rapid drying are warranted. Based on the current two-week forecast, Huse said above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation are expected across the state until the end of August.
“With all this rain, the growth of the grass and plants has probably quadrupled what we had last year,” Keating said. “We have that factor hanging out there. Once we get a frost and leaves start to fall, we’ll be back into a higher danger season. What precludes that is when we get the first snow. We’re not erasing wildfire season completely. We’re keeping our fingers crossed we’ll make it through the fall season.”
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