Summit County wildfire risk slightly higher than last summer
June 4, 2015
Like dandelions now blooming along roads, paths and trails, Summit County's wildfires tend to ignite where people and human activity are most concentrated.
Unlike the harmless flowers though, wildfires threaten people and property; local authorities base many of their decisions on fire risk.
This summer, the county's wildfire risk is slightly higher than last summer, which followed one of the snowiest winters on record, said Doug Cupp, Summit County's wildfire mitigation specialist. He cautioned that even in the wet May of 2014, the county responded to a small fire north of Silverthorne.
Low precipitation in February and March this year had local officials worried this spring about the 2015 wildfire season. Then it rained for about a month straight.
"May really helped us recover," Cupp said.
2015 has been unusual statewide in that no major Colorado wildfires have been reported to state or federal officials so far, he said.
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Summit should experience below-average wildfire activity through the month of June, thanks to the recent wet weather, followed by normal wildfire activity for the rest of the summer, according to the monthly forecast released June 1 by the National Interagency Fire Center.
KNOWNS AND UNKNOWNS
Summit's chance of experiencing any wildfires this summer, like any summer, is extremely high, Cupp said. The county has seen roughly 11 a year for the last 10 years.
But the size and location of the fire is what really matters, and that's harder to predict.
For all their satellite imaging, ground data collection and mathematical models, Cupp said those who study and track wildfires can't produce a probability for whether a fire of significant size will start in a given area.
The chance of a fire occurring, like the weather, is easier to predict one to five days out, while forecasts for a month or more into the future grow less reliable.
Fires are also much simpler to describe and anticipate after they've ignited, Cupp said, and wildfire experts consider three factors — weather, topography and fuel — to understand how they might spread.
For example, Cupp considers regional drought indices, and he looks at local data from a federal station in Dillon that includes fuel moisture. The station automatically measures the weight of dead wood of varying sizes and sends out a daily snapshot that shows how recent weather has affected the wood's water content.
On Wednesday, June 3, Cupp said Summit's fuel moisture is about normal, and the county is experiencing low drought concerns. If this summer remains a normal wildfire season for the county as predicted, he expects to see ground fires, which are easier to contain and suppress.
Unlike most other parts of Colorado, Summit is protected from wildfire somewhat by its elevation and corresponding climate. Snowpack that persists into early summer and monsoon rains in July and August provide a buffer and create a shorter wildfire season.
The wildfire season in Colorado, and much of the West, has lengthened in recent years with a long-term trend of warmer, drier weather.
Summit has also experienced that pattern; but, while the county sees most of its fires in July, the Front Range has experienced a major wildfire in the first week of June nearly every year for the last 10 to 15 years, Cupp said, including the Hayman, High Park and Waldo Canyon fires.
The Front Range also must factor in occasional periods of extremely high winds, while Summit's mountains usually block strong, persistent gusts.
Summit also doesn't see the dry lightning strikes that occur without rain and spark fires elsewhere in the state. Lightning typically hits Summit's high peaks, and their rocks aren't flammable. Summit's fires are usually caused by human-related objects, like campfires, cigarette butts and power lines.
PUBLIC, PRIVATE PREVENTION
The county is most geographically similar in elevation and weather to Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Cupp said — an area that has experienced serious fires in recent years.
"We definitely have the potential for a significant fire to occur," he said, so residents and local property owners shouldn't become complacent.
One of the risk factors unique to Summit is the national forest land that surrounds the county's homes, businesses, roads, power lines, water supplies and other valuable structures. Much of the forest is continuous without firebreaks, or gaps in vegetation that would slow or stop a fire.
Clear-cutting on national forest land has created some firebreaks around towns, Cupp said. Public and private entities limb trees as another mitigation method that clears vertical space, so fires can't spread from the ground to the tree crowns.
This year, county officials will again target private property and, especially, the two-thirds of the county's housing structures that sit unoccupied for much of the year, in an effort to create more defensible space for firefighters to work and to slow the spread of fires from forest to structure or vice versa.
The free Summit County Chipping Program was more successful than organizers expected, and, this summer, crews will do two rounds through the county, collecting wood from June 29 through October 2.
The program began last year, funded with a state grant and a voter-approved tax for wildfire mitigation. For more information about the program, visit http://www.co.summit.co.us/chippingprogram.
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