GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - A low snowpack and an early transition from winter to summer already has resulted in wildfires on the Western Slope, and officials are staring at what could be a bad year for wildfire.
Most of those early-season fires were caused by "controlled burns that got out of control," said Garfield Sheriff Lou Vallario.
But Vallario and other regional officials are gearing up for more of the same as the summer wears on.
"It's gonna be ugly," predicted Vallario, "unless we get some moisture."
"The snowpack is down, moisture is down and the winds are coming up," agreed Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach. "All of the indications are for a bad fire season here in Garfield County."
The Roaring Fork Valley's snowpack, measured at a site on McClure Pass south of Carbondale, stands at 45 inches, or 70 percent of average, for the month of March, according to data maintained by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The water content of the snow at that site, as of March 1, was reported to be 11.7 inches, compared to water content of 18.4 inches at the same time last year.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, operated by the federal government, has officially ranked the Roaring Fork Valley as "abnormally dry," which to area wildfire watchers means this region is looking at a long, hot summer.
"We never really know for sure what's going to happen," Vallario remarked.
He said Garfield County follows the International Fire Code, which essentially prohibits open fires at any time from Memorial Day to Labor Day on state or private lands, other than for agricultural purposes.
Essentially, Vallario said, "There's always a fire ban in place, unless you get a permit."
Given the dry conditions, he said, it is possible that "we might look at doing that a little bit earlier," and start the ban prior to Memorial Day.
A fire ban was announced Friday for Eagle County, by Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy.
"Eagle County has seen little moisture, and fire conditions continue to worsen," Hoy's department declared in a statement. "In addition, Red Flag Fire and high wind warnings and watches continue to be issued. The National Weather Service has declared March 2012 as the driest month on record."
Hoy banned all open fires other than contained fires with liquid or gas fuel stoves, camp fires in approved campgrounds and charcoal grill fires on private property.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has stopped conducting prescribed burns on public lands within its scope anywhere in Colorado, spurred to action by the prospects of drought and high winds.
"Right now," said Steven Hall, BLM spokesman in Denver, "based on conditions, we have no plans in the near future to ignite any prescribed fires."
He said the agency has not gone so far as to ban campfires on BLM property, though it may happen.
Leach said he expects to add personnel to his department for the coming fire season, bringing in part-time wildlands firefighters as well as personnel trained in wildfire prevention and preparedness.
"We're probably going to ramp up our public information program," Leach predicted.
Leach also said fire officials from different counties and fire districts will be meeting, starting next week, to get ready for a potentially busy season.
"We are anticipating a dry, dangerous fire year," said Vallario, summing up the prospects.