Less than a quarter acre of Summit County has been scorched by wildfire so far this summer
Summit County has had a quiet summer for wildfires: Rain has doused the county, keeping fire restrictions at bay and bringing the fire danger to low. Even fire starters like lightning have been foiled, despite consistent thunderstorms and Thor’s flashlight regularly lighting up the valley.
On Tuesday, Summit County’s fire danger moved to low and entered its 10th week in a row with no fire restrictions, an unmatched feat in recent years. Summit Fire & EMS called the change to low an “improbability for this time of year.” While thunderstorms roll through the county weekly, the danger of lightning-caused fires, like Aug. 4’s Red Fire in Yosemite, has mostly fallen into the background.
Despite the wet spell, fire officials still urge people to exercise caution and never leave campfires unattended.
“Lightning can start fires even in wet periods like what we’re experiencing now, but typically those fires don’t do much,” Summit fire & EMS spokesperson Steve Lipsher said.
The slope of the land, the weather and the type of fuel all factor into the fire’s chance of spreading, but overall David Boyd with White River National Forest said, “The risk is fairly low.”
Despite regular thunderstorms, Summit County has seen just two lightning fires this year. The two strikes burned just 0.2 acres in total, Boyd reported, which accounts for all of Summit County’s wildfires — both human and naturally caused. Over in nearby Eagle County, Boyd said lightning begins fires on Forest Service land nearly every few days, but the fire is usually contained to the first tree it struck.
“They can smolder in vegetation for a couple of days, but with as saturated as everything is right now, it’s very unlikely that we’d see a fire grow much at all. Most times, they just go out on their own,” Lipsher wrote.
Heavy fuels have now received enough rain to lower the region’s fire risk, Boyd said. Heavy fuels include downed trees that respond slowly to seasonal climate changes. While the rain has soaked into the soil and led smaller grasses and trophy wildflowers to flourish — or “to go gangbusters,” as Boyd said — larger fuels can take weeks of wet weather before they pose less of a threat.
Summit County hasn’t had a single human-caused wildfire this year on forest service land, Boyd said. About 90% of wildfires are human caused, Lipsher added.
But a quiet fire season doesn’t mean firefighters are biding their time.
“When we’re in low fire danger like this, it gives us a chance to help out other areas,” Boyd said.
During this summer, crews have gone to aid other agencies in the San Juan National Forest, while others have cut new fire lines and performed mitigation work.
Firefighters with Summit Fire & EMS also focus on things that aren’t wildland tasks this time of year. Medical emergencies, structure fires and accidents persist in the county, so firefighters continue to operate on high alert, Lipsher said.
Still, the removal of firefighters’ “biggest existential threat” lowers stress levels, Lipsher said. “When we see those red-flag warnings issued by the National Weather Service and know that our vegetation is crackling dry and that fires are breaking out all around us, potentially reducing the availability of mutual aid and rapid response from our neighbors, we’re a bit on pins and needles waiting for something that we hope won’t happen,” he wrote.
Dry ground cover remains a possibility for the year, Boyd said. It’s impossible to say if rainy weather will persist long enough to carry Summit County into the winter without heavy fuels drying out and serious fire danger returning, he said. Summit County’s monsoon season usually curtails around mid-August, yet rains are continuing for at least the next week according to the National Weather Service’s forecast.
What Boyd could say, however, was Summit County’s “gangbusting” smaller fuel sources could continue as a fire concern in 2023 after the snows melt and a hot, dry summer returns.
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