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Feds see $470 million gap in firefighting budget

 firefighters teamed up in March 2012 to quell an early season wildfire along Montezuma Road, near Keystone Resort, in Summit County, Colorado. Bob Berwyn photo.

Firefighters teamed up in March 2012 to quell an early season wildfire near Keystone Resort, in Summit County, Colorado. Bob Berwyn photo.

Funding shortfall has ripple effect in other public lands programs

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — With a dangerous fire season forecast for parts of the country, especially the drought-stricken far West and Southern Plains, federal firefighting agencies will likely once again face a huge budget shortfall. That could require the Forest Service to divert funds from other programs, according to top administration officials who presented the report to Congress.

The report projects firefighting costs of about $1.8 billion, with only $1.4 billion budgeted. The Obama administration is advocating for a budget that would close the gap by giving firefighting agencies the ability to use emergency funds separate from their discretionary budgets to fight fires.

Similar legislation is pending in Congress, where the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is cosponsored by Sen.Michal Bennet (D-CO) and Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Ron Wyden (D-OR). Continue reading

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Environment: New model could boost forecasts for predicting behavior of large and complex wildfires

Local firefighters teamed up in March 2012 to quell an early season wildfire along Montezuma Road, near Keystone Resort, in Summit County, Colorado. Bob Berwyn photo.

Local firefighters team up in March 2012 to quell an early season wildfire along Montezuma Road, near Keystone Resort, in Summit County, Colorado. Bob Berwyn photo.

Updated satellite instruments help refine predictions

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — As the West Fork Fire Complex roared through the spruce and fir forests of the Colorado San Juans last summer, on its way to becoming the state’s second-largest wildfire on record, communities in the region were on edge for days. Slight shifts in wind pushed the fire in new directions every other day, forcing some residents to leave their homes for weeks.

Like many large fires, the West Fork Complex even created its own weather, making it even harder for experts to project its path. But new research by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Maryland may help firefighters and resource managers get a better handle on predicting fire behavior. Continue reading

Colorado: Wildfire task force report suggests crackdown on red zone development

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The cost of property damage caused by wildfires has spiked in recent years.

More disastrous fires ahead with sustained effort to address threat

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Increased development in fire-prone forest lands in Colorado “ensures that the pattern of damaging wildfire will continue,” according to a state task force report released last week.

The report was delivered to Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislative after two consecutive years of deadly and destructive fires along the Front Range.

The report calls for rating the wildfire risks on individual properties, and facilitating mitigation and prevention measures at the local level. Property owners in the red zone should be primarily responsible for adressing wildfire dangers, to the point of paying special fees to help fund mitigation efforts. Continue reading

Siberian wildfires linked with global warming

Researchers say Russian fires reflect global trends of increasing wildfires

Acquired by MODIS on July 25, 2013, the natural-color image shows smoke billowing from fires in the Khanty-Mansiyskiy and Yamal-Nenetskiy districts. Red outlines indicate hot spots where MODIS detected abnormally warm surface temperatures associated with fire.

Acquired by MODIS on July 25, 2013, the natural-color image shows smoke billowing from fires in the Khanty-Mansiyskiy and Yamal-Nenetskiy districts. Red outlines indicate hot spots where MODIS detected abnormally warm surface temperatures associated with fire.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A heat wave caused by a “stuck” weather pattern contributed to the intensity of Siberian wildfires in 2012, according to NASA, which warned that similar conditions could prevail this year after another unusual heat wave brought a surge of fire activity in northern Siberia in July.

The persistent high pressure over the  Russian Arctic—a blocking high — drove temperatures up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the northern city of Norilsk, where summer temperatures generally average about 61 degrees.

Russia since the mid-1970s has been more rapid than most areas — about .51 degrees Celsius per decade compared to about .17 degrees Celsius globally, according to a study by Anatoly Shvidenko of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Continue reading

Excess Air Force planes eyed for firefighting duty

Sen. Mark Udall pressing Defense Department to transfer unneeded cargo planes to U.S. Forest Service as soon as possible

A  C-27J in flight. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

A C-27J in flight. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — U.S. Forest Service efforts to modernize its firefighting air tanker fleet aren’t moving fast enough for Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado democrat who has been pushing for more wildfire resources on all fronts.

This week, Udall pressed the U.S. Defense Department to quickly transfer excess military aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. In a bipartisan letter, spearheaded with Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), Udall said the Pentagon isn’t using its authority to transfer its excess aircraft at no cost to taxpayers.

According to the letter, the Forest Service was unable to meet about half of the requests for firefighting air support in 2012. The Air Force is nearing completion of a divestiture plan for the C-27J Spartan aircraft, and Udall wants to see at least some of those planes put to work fighting fires. Read the letter here. Continue reading

Could drones help battle wildfires?

Test sites proposed to learn how drones could improve wildfire monitoring, mitigation, and containment

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Images taken from space can provide a lot of information about wildfires, but low-level flights by unmanned aircraft could help make firefighting safer and more efficient, some experts believe. This image of the West Fork Fire Complex in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado was taken June 26 from the International Space Station. Visit this NASA Earth Observatory page for more information about the image.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A pair of U.S. Senators wants to get a leg up on wildfires by spurring the use of unmanned surveillance aircraft to make firefighting efforts more efficient.

“Extreme wildfires have become an all too common occurrence in Colorado, leaving families without homes and hundreds of thousands of charred acreage in their paths,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). “We need to employ every tool available to help firefighters in their battles. This bipartisan amendment will help us develop UAS technology and teach us more about how they can strengthen our fights against wildfires more quickly and safely.”

Bennet (D-CO) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) this week introduced an amendment to create two additional test sites for unmanned aerial systems, with a focus on how they could be used for firefighting. Continue reading

Colorado lawmakers seek federal disaster aid for Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires

A smoke column rises from the West Fork Fire Complex in Colorado's San Juan Mountains. Photo courtesy InciWeb/Schlapfer

A smoke column rises from the West Fork Fire Complex in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Photo courtesy InciWeb/Schlapfer.

Congressional delegation also wants economic aid for communities and businesses affected by West Fork Fire Complex

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Colorado’s polarized congressional delegation may not agree on much, but it did find common ground in asking for federal money to help parts of the state recover from recent wildfires.

The lawmakers this week sent a letter to President Obama, asking him to expedite and approve a request from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to issue federal major disaster declarations in response to the Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires. The declaration would make federal resources available for response and recovery efforts. Click here to view the letter.

Additionally, the delegation asked for the Small Business Administration to quickly approve a disaster declaration for the massive West Fork Fire complex in Southwest Colorado to provide economic injury disaster loans to businesses affected by the fire. The sprawling blaze in the San Juans has effectively shut down parts of the area’s economically important summer tourism season. Continue reading

Colorado: West Fork Fire now over 100,000 acres

The West Fork/Windy Pass wildfire footprint as of July 4, 2013.

The West Fork/Windy Pass wildfire footprint as of July 4, 2013.

West Fork Fire is now second-largest in Colorado history, after the 2002 Hayman Fire

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Feeding on more beetle-killed spruce trees, the West Fork Fire grew by more than 10,000 acres in the past 24 hours and became only the second wildfire in Colorado to burn across a footprint of more than 100,000 acres.

The largest recorded fire in Colorado was the 2002 Hayman Fire, which spread across more than 137,000 acres before it was extinguished. The third-largest fire was last summer’s High Park Fire.

The West Fork Fire Complex, burning the San Juans of southwest Colorado, is now about 20 percent contained, and firefighters have been able to create defensive lines near some of the developed facilities in the area, including Wolf Creek Ski Area. Rugged terrain and the abundance of beetle-killed trees have prevented firefighters from making a direct attack on the fire in many areas.

Progress toward containment has been made where there is minimal risk to firefighters, enabling direct attacks and establishment of secure fire lines.

All but one of Colorado’s 15 largest wildfires have burned in the past 10 years, lending support to the idea that climate change is now a significant factor in the wildfire equation, as warmer temperatures drive drought and beetle kill. Decades of fire suppression most likely set the state for the infernos of the past 10 years.

For more details on the West Fork Fire Complex, visit www.InciWeb.org.

The wildfire outlook for the rest of the summer from the National Interagency Fire Center:

Colorado: Fire danger creeps up in the high country

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The fire danger is currently rated as high in most of Colorado’s north-central mountains.

BLM lands in NW Colorado already under Stage 1 fire restrictions

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — After a bone-dry June, some public land managers in Colorado are starting to enact fire restrictions to lessen the chances of a human-caused wildfire start.

Summit County only picked up about 15 percent of the long-term average precipitation in June, for example with .19 inches at the official National Weather Service site in Dillon, compared to the average 1.14 inches. High temperatures for the month were about 4 degrees above average.

The White River National Forest (Eagle and Summit counties) hasn’t issued any restrictions yet, but lands administered by Bureau of Land Management in  parts of northwest Colorado have been under Stage 1 restrictions since June 27. Continue reading

Colorado: West Fork Fire grows to 90,000 acres

Smoke impacts extend to Pagosa Springs

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By Summit Voice

FRISCO — The West Fork Fire Complex grew to more than 90,000 acres late in the week, as shifting winds drove the flames in new directions and sent a thick layer of smoke down the San Juan River Valley, where an inversion kept the smoke hanging low over the town of Pagosa Springs.

Firefighters say they’ve achieved about 2 percent containment with a series of dozer lines that may help prevent the fire from escaping in unwanted directions on some fronts. More than 1,500 firefighters and 20 aircraft are involved in the efforts to suppress and control the fire.

In one area around Trout Creek, the fire advanced four miles in less than two hours, according to the most recent report posted at InciWeb.org. Firefighters were able to do a successful burnout to protect cabins in the area. Continue reading

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