Summit County’s rainy summer evaporates with a speedy onset of autumn wildfire season

Tall grasses, in the process of curing in the hot sun, are pictured on Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 6, 2022, in the Kayak Overnight Parking Lot at the end of Main Street in Frisco. The fire danger level was moved from moderate to high on Tuesday partly because of the drying out of vegetation.
Eiliana Wright/Summit Daily News

Fire danger in Summit County went from low to high within a span of four days.

On Tuesday morning, Sept. 6, residents who are enrolled in Summit County Alerts received a text that announced fire danger in Summit County had increased to high and that wildfire smoke — though not sourced from the county — would affect skies during the day. By the time the sun was higher in the sky, residents also may have noticed that mountains seemed hazy, sunbeams were tinted orange and sunshine wasn’t quite as bright. 

With Summit County’s rainy summer coming to a close, wildfire conditions and drought levels have begun to fluctuate, which means restrictions and danger levels likely will too. 

“We’ve had wonderful monsoon rains pretty much all summer long, and then all of a sudden, last week, the spigot got turned off,” said Steve Lipsher, the public information officer for Summit Fire & EMS. 

Though fire danger in Summit County has moved to high, the southern half of Summit County is no longer in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and there are no fire restrictions recommended for the week of Tuesday, Sept. 6.

Tuesday morning at the Summit Board of County Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Tamara Pogue asked Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons why there weren’t any fire restrictions if the county’s danger is now listed as “high.”

FitzSimons replied that there are two reasons. First, he said fire restrictions and fire danger are not based on the same conditions. Second, while fire conditions are coming close to restriction levels, FitzSimons said they have not yet reached all trigger points necessary for that change to occur. 

Fire restrictions are based on historical fuel data over the last 20 years. That data helps them to decide whether or not to enact fire restrictions.

Fire danger, on the other hand, is based on day-to-day conditions. FitzSimons said the combination of last week’s high temperatures, the absence of monsoonal rains and the curing out of live fuel moistures may all be reasons fire danger increased. 

As for fire restrictions, Soda Creek, a Summit County location near Summit Cove that measures live fuel moistures, showed that “levels are above historic thresholds.” While that condition is a trigger point for a restriction, it’s the only trigger point that has been reached thus far. 

Stating that monsoonal rains have “moved on,” FitzSimons said forecasts for the next seven days show little to no precipitation.

The two-week outlook calls for above average temperatures and normal to above-average precipitation. The three-month outlook does not call for any above normal risk or significant fire potential. 

However, FitzSimons said that it’s very likely 2022’s first fire restriction will come next week. Lipsher also said that the long and heavy monsoonal rains of 2022 may create a dangerous autumn in Summit County.

“We have had a summer’s worth of vegetation growth,” Lipsher said. “That vegetation is drying out and dying and getting into a season when we’re going to start seeing frost at night, which then — additionally — dries out and kills off vegetation.”

Lipsher said anyone driving around Summit County may see the dry conditions. Good examples of dry vegetation can be found along the recpath near Summit Cove and the Dillon Dam Reservoir.

He said the grasses around those areas have passed their seeding phase and have grown “grass heads” on them. They’ll likely be yellow or brown, and nearly waist high. 

“Think about taking a handful of green springtime grass and holding a cigarette lighter to them,” Lipsher said. “Could you light that handful of green grass on fire? You cannot. Grab a handful of this mature grass there and imagine holding a cigarette lighter to it. Would that catch on fire? Yes, very likely.”

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