Although the summer fire season has been relatively uneventful across the upper Colorado River region, the recent heat wave coupled with only brief, mostly localized rains has area fire officials on heightened alert.
A small brush fire that broke out near Basalt on Monday and another small grass fire within the city limits of Rifle on Tuesday point up the fact that a heavy snow year and wet spring serve as protection for only so long before things inevitably dry out with the summer heat.
“We’re right on that edge where things are starting to get pretty dry,” said Orrin Moon, fire marshal for Colorado River Fire Rescue in Rifle.
The Tuesday grass fire that ignited behind a church building near the intersection of Morrow and Birch streets was extinguished fairly quickly, and did not threaten any structures. It was likely human-caused, possibly from a cigarette, Rifle Police Chief John Dyer said.
No fire restrictions are currently in place within the CRFR district, which also includes the Silt and New Castle areas. However, that could change if the dry conditions persist into next week without significant rain, Moon said.
The National Weather Service in Grand Junction was calling for a 30 percent chance of rain Wednesday and again this afternoon for the DeBeque-to-Silt corridor, dropping off to a 20 percent chance through the weekend and into the early part of the week. High temperatures were expected to continue in the upper 80s to mid-90s through that stretch.
The forecast for the Glenwood Springs and Carbondale area was a little more favorable for afternoon thunderstorms at least through Friday, but with daytime highs still ranging from 85 to 95 degrees, according to the NWS forecast.
The Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management unit, which covers public lands from the Continental Divide along the Colorado River corridor to the Utah state line, had no active fires as of Wednesday, said Pat Thrasher, fire information officer for the unit.
Firefighters did respond to a small, one-tenth of an acre fire in a remote area of Rio Blanco County on Tuesday that was the result of an unattended campfire, he said.
“We continue to urge all recreationists to exercise extreme caution with campfires … and to make sure fires are dead out before breaking camp,” Thrasher said.
The fire danger on U.S. Forest Service and BLM lands in the region continues to be moderate at higher elevations, and high to very high at lower elevations, he said.
“At the higher elevations where there was more snow it will inherently take longer for vegetation to dry out,” Thrasher said. “At the lower elevations and in the valleys we are starting to see the grasses get browned out and there are some dry fuels.”
The weather forecast suggests that the seasonal return of widespread afternoon and evening rainstorms could be imminent.
However, “it’s going to take a fairly long duration of rains to give us any kind of moisture recovery, especially at those lower elevations,” Thrasher said.
Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson said the Glenwood Springs area has no fire restrictions. But persistent hot temperatures with little or no rain could change things, he said.
“We haven’t been under any red flag warnings, so we’ve been lucky there,” Tillotson said of the absence for a couple of weeks of afternoon winds that contribute greatly to the fire danger. “But I’m still nervous, as I think a lot of us are.”
The Basalt-area fire, which broke out near the Willits Lane intersection with Highway 82, was believed to be human-caused. It was knocked down by Basalt firefighters before spreading, according to the Aspen Times.
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said the midvalley fire conditions are rated “moderate” because of the lush conditions created by the snowy winter and spotty showers in recent days.
Monday’s fire broke out even though the grass was wet, pointing up the increasing danger as things dry out, he said.
The Basalt and Carbondale fire districts have both begun their seasonal “roving patrols,” sending out crews during the afternoon and evening hours to keep an eye out for wildfires and to initiate a quick attack if anything is spotted.