Summer outlook still calling for above-normal chances for wildfire in western Colorado, south-central Wyoming and parts of Great Basin
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The fire danger in the high country has eased slightly in the past couple weeks, as timely spring rains and the greening up of potential fuels have combined to reduce the potential for rapidly spreading blazes. That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a fire, but the likelihood of a fire starting and growing quickly is somewhat less than just a few weeks ago, fire experts said.
So far this year, wildfires nationally are well down from last year’s record-setting early season pace and well below the 10-year average for acres burned. For information on current fires go to Inciweb.org.
But those conditions could change again quickly depending on conditions in the next few weeks, said Ross Wilmore, the federal fire management officer for the east zone of the White River National Forest. This year’s early snowmelt is still a key factor in the fire equation, as ground fuels like last year’s grasses and downed trees dried out more quickly than usual.
Wilmore said firefighters don’t want the public to let down their guard, but that it’s important to understand that conditions can change from day to day and week to week.
“We want people to be ready, to have their ready-set-go kits,” he said, referring to the need for residents of fire-prone areas to be prepared for an evacuation. “But we don’t want to scare people or have them be complacent because they’re constantly hearing about fire danger,” he added.
The key is understanding that fire experts are constantly evaluating the conditions, not only to inform and warn the public if necessary, but to make sure fire crews have the latest information on the potential for fires.
This past week, Wilmore made one of his frequent visits to Summit County to get a first-hand look at the condition of local fuels, finding, for example, that the new crop of grass is starting to push up through last year’s dead grasses On the one hand, that process aerates and cures the older grass, making it more flammable; on the other hand, the green grass coming up helps suppress the threat of a fire spreading quickly along the ground.
Other local factors include the appearance of grasses in beetle-killed lodgepole stands. Those grasses have started growing just in the past few years as the trees died, enabling sunlight to reach the forest floor. Combined with dead and down trees, that also complicates the fire equation, he said.
Local conditions match up to the regional fire forecast issued at the beginning of the month by the National Interagency Fire Center, which called for “normal” significant fire potential in May, which means fire managers expect “mainly short duration large fire activity … with less chance of multiple long duration significant fires.”
For the rest of the summer, the NIFC is calling for above-average significant fire potentail for western Colorado and south-central Wyoming, where long-term drought exists.
From the forecast:
“Additionally, indicators point towards a general warming trend in the equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures over the next few months, with neutral to weak El Niño predicted during the summer period. The resultant weather pattern for the Area includes near to above average temperatures across the region during June through August, while precipitation east of the divide is expected to be near to above normal, with a drier regime west of the divide.”
To-date this year there have been about 19,000 fires (average 25,000) that have burned across about 400,000 acres (average 960,000 acres).
Read the whole summer outlook here.