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

Federal wildfire budgets need a makeover

Congress makes bipartisan push to reform funding for prevention

The East Peak Fire burns in late June, 2013 in the Spanish Peaks area. Photo courtesy Inciweb.org/Don Degman.

The East Peak Fire burns in late June, 2013 in the Spanish Peaks area. Photo courtesy Inciweb.org/Don Degman.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators says the Forest Service must find a better to allocate funds for firefighting. Cutting money for wildfire prevention leads to spiraling costs for firefighting and ultimately increases the size of fires, the senators wrote in a June 28 letter to cabinet members.

The letter requests the administration to create an action plan to fully fund prevention efforts such as hazardous fuels reduction, in addition to fire suppression efforts. Currently, the administration takes funds from other non-fire programs to pay for fire suppression costs – a practice called fire borrowing. Continue reading

Colorado: East Peak Fire partially contained, West Fork Complex still burning unchecked

Firefighters focused on structure protection

A NASA satellite image shows the size of the smoke plumes blowing off the West Fork Fire Complex in southwest Colorado.

A NASA satellite image shows the size of the smoke plumes blowing off the West Fork Fire Complex in southwest Colorado. Visit this NASA website for more.

A view of the East Peak Fire. Photo courtesy Don Degman and InciWeb.org.

A view of the East Peak Fire. Photo courtesy Don Degman and InciWeb.org.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A slight let-up in the intense fire-weather conditions in southern Colorado enabled firefighters to gain a solid foothold against the East Peak Fire, where officials Monday evening reported 50 percent containment of the blaze on the eastern flank of the Spanish Peaks, above Walsenburg.

The huge West Fork Complex, which has spread across a 75,000-acre footprint around the Wolf Creek Pass area, is still burning more or less unchecked. During a briefing Friday, incident commanders said the fire is likely to continue until there is a significant shift in the weather. Continue reading

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