Fire risk grows amid hot and dry conditions

The East Canyon Fire near Mancos shoots smoke into the sky.

Low moisture content in vegetation, coupled with high temperatures — and, for the past several days, high wind — is propelling fire conditions in the region to potentially dangerous levels.

Hot and dry conditions are typical for mid-June to mid-July, but, as wildfires rage in other parts of the state, it’s a good time for people to be aware, and to be proactive against the risks, local experts said.

“This is our typical fire season,” said Steve Ellis, the West Area Fire Management officer for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

“In my 45 years, June 15 is kind of the highlight of our fire season, generally. This year, because we had such a dry spring, our conditions are probably a little higher than normal. With this wind and warm temperatures, it wouldn’t take us very long for fuels to get to that extreme category.

“But right now, it is a typical June.”

Ellis said that in lower elevations (below 8,000 feet), conditions are typical, in that there isn’t much moisture left in the soil, and as vegetation dries, it is ripe for fire spread.

Add dry lightning to the mix and wildland fires become more likely. Although the Steel Canyon Fire last month on the West End is suspected as human-caused, the East Canyon Fire now burning near Mancos was sparked by lightning, Ellis said.

That fire had exceeded 2,700 acres Tuesday, and also exceeded the capabilities of Montezuma and LaPlata counties’ fire control. The blaze meets criteria for a state-responsibility fire, and the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control is now working with the Bureau of Land Management in tackling the fire, Ellis said.

“It’s certainly dry and hot out there,” said Jamie Gomez, executive director of the West Region Wildlife Council. “… Late June is typically the peak of fire season in Colorado. We usually have pretty hot, dry and windy conditions.”

Usually, mid-July brings monsoonal weather patterns, but the last two weeks of June and the first two in July have traditionally seen the most fires, he said.

“All the vegetation is really low on fuel moisture, the amount of moisture in the plants,” Gomez said.

The moisture content drops over the course of spring and into summer and is likely now at its lowest point. Those fuels are “ready to burn,” he said.

Mother Nature is not the only cause of wildfires. Although in Colorado, lightning is more often the cause than human activity, unattended campfires, sparks from chainsaws and other equipment, and even a hot tailpipe of a vehicle parked in dry grass have caused fires.

“Either way, we’re in that condition right now where any kind of spark out there has the potential to cause a wildfire,” Gomez said — plus, heat, dry air and wind propel the fires.

“We’re definitely seeing those around the state, around the West. The more everyone can be doing ahead of the fire, the better those things will go,” he said.

Prevention steps include the basics, like keeping a campfire small and making sure it is completely out before leaving camp; being extremely mindful when smoking outdoors, and being careful when parking vehicles, Ellis said.

So far, there are not many restrictions in Montrose, Delta and Ouray counties, and there are none on the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, although fireworks are always prohibited on forest lands.

The BLM typically supports restrictions put in place by counties, or bases them on landscape conditions.

Fire restrictions and links to other information can be found at westslopefireinfo.com.

“I highly encourage everyone to enjoy being outside, but to all remember the Smokey Bear things we have learned,” Ellis said.

Beyond taking steps to prevent fire, people living in the wildfire-prone areas can also do things to protect their homes and starve wildland blazes of fuel.

“This is a good time to be thinking about wildfire in your neighborhood, community and property, and things you can do to reduce wildfire risk,” Gomez said.

Through grant funding, the wildfire council can conduct site visits to assess a property’s specific risks and make recommendations for mitigation work.

“There’s lots of things folks can be doing out there. We have the ability to meet with a homeowner on site to provide specific recommendations, which is often more helpful than a website or brochure can be,” Gomez said.

Risk-reduction steps include hardening homes by removing the fuel sources that can ignite as wind or other fire activity propel hot embers — the leading cause of home ignition during wildfires.

Home hardening includes creating defensible space around structures and by moving flammable material — such as firewood — at least 30 feet from homes.

Decks pose a considerable risk for spreading wildfires; the WRWC recommends enclosing them with metal or other non-combustible material so that embers cannot fly underneath them and ignite.

Wooden fencing that runs right up to the home is another significant hazard, Gomez said. One recommendation is to remove the first 5 feet of fencing that is attached to the home and replace it with a section of non-combustible fencing.

Pay attention to landscaping material, such as wood chips or bark mulch, which should not be placed within 5 feet of the home, again, because of embers.

“The challenge is that every home and property is somewhat unique. There are usually some kind of unique situations in the way the home was built, situated, different trees and shrubs,” Gomez said.

“There are unique and individual decisions that need to be made.”

People who live in areas where development intersects with wildland (the wildland-urban interface) can visit cowildfire.org for more information about site visits, as well as cost-share programs.

Home hardening and community-scale projects, such as thinning, serve to reduce the intensity of future fires. A lower intensity fire can be managed more effectively, sometimes even in a beneficial way.

“Low intensity fires are less and less common, because we have more of a build-up of tree density and fuels than we pretty much ever had,” Gomez said.

“That’s the challenge we have. … How can we address that issue knowing we have a considerable build-up of fuels, and every year, more and more people interested in living in our beautiful forests?”

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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