Colorado officials warn 2022 could be worst wildfire year in state history
Colorado will pour an additional $20 million in federal funding into firefighting and prevention initiatives ahead of what officials say could be the worst wildfire season in the state’s history.
Above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation are predicted across the state through June, thrusting many parts of Colorado into more severe drought conditions and placing more of the state at risk, officials said during a presentation Friday on this year’s wildfire outlook.
Monsoonal moisture could bring reprieve to the Western Slope in June, but current forecasts predict extreme drought conditions for the Front Range through July, Mike Morgan, director of Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control said.
Ahead of what could be a devastating wildfire season, Colorado’s strategy to fight fires involves early detection and aggressive initial attack, Morgan said. The funding will help the state grow its firefighting fleet for the 2022 wildfire season and implement a statewide dispatch center.
Last year, 6,679 reported fires burned a total of 56,056 acres — marking an uptick from the average 5,507 fires reported per year in Colorado, Morgan said.
The state is expected to experience up to a fivefold increase in acres burned by wildfires by 2050, according to the Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s 2022 Wildfire Preparedness Plan.
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UPDATED: I-70 reopens through Glenwood Canyon after fire near Gypsum prompted closure Saturday afternoon
Update 8:00 p.m.: Interstate 70 is open both directions between MM116 (Glenwood Springs) and MM 140 (Gypsum).
Update 6:30 p.m.: Colorado Department of Transportation is initiating the northern alternate route for I-70 traffic. The Westbound closure point is Exit 157 (Wolcott).
The size of the fire is estimated to be 25-30 acres.
Update 5:00 p.m.: The existing closure on I-70 has been moved from MM 116 (Glenwood Springs) to MM 87 (West Rifle). Local traffic is excluded.
Interstate 70 is closed both directions between MM 116 (Glenwood Springs) and MM140 (Gypsum) due to a fire near Gypsum according to a text alert sent out around 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. There is no estimated time for reopening.
According to the Eagle County PIO Facebook page the Duck Pond Fire began in the area of the Duck Pond Open Space between Gypsum and Dotsero. Winds pushed the fire slowly in an easterly direction towards Gypsum.
Fire crews responded, but the area presents challenging access issues. An evacuation notice has been issued for Willowstone neighborhood in Gypsum. An evacuation shelter is being set up at Eagle River Center at 794 Fairgrounds.
5:21 PM Update: PRE-EVACUATION NOTICE: Residents, businesses and others in Red Hill Area, please be ready to evacuate due to a wildland fire. This includes Beacon Rd, Cedar Dr, Strohm Cir, Highland Rd, Sunset Ln, Knob Ln.
This story is developing and will be updated with further information
Wildfire risk is just a warm, windy day away for Roaring Fork Valley
It’s still raining and snowing in the Roaring Fork Valley, but that’s not dousing experts’ concerns about wildfire threat later this year.
Roaring Fork Fire Protection District’s board of directors recently approved funding for “severity patrol” that will run from Memorial Day Weekend into September, according to fire chief Scott Thompson.
While snowpack has been running close to average this winter, a long-term drought has sucked the moisture level out of trees and vegetation and dried soils, Thompson said. It will take several years of above average moisture to reduce the risk of summer wildfires.
“I think we still have a huge threat in our valley,” Thompson said.
His instincts are typically spot on. He expressed concerns about wildfire risk less than one week before the Lake Christine Fire broke out on July 3, 2018, and threatened Basalt and El Jebel.
As part of this year’s precaution, four full-time summer workers will be hired specifically for the severity patrol. They will drive a fire truck around particularly susceptible portions of the sprawling district, such as Missouri Heights. The crew will also work with homeowners who want to “harden” their property to increase protection from wildfire, Thompson said.
Roaring Fork Fire Rescue has run the patrols intermittently over the years. This year is different because special funding was allocated, Thompson said.
The patrols have proven effective in the past because the firefighters have been able to respond to lightning strikes and other sources before fire has a chance to spread, he said.
Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District will also run the special patrols from roughly Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend, according to public information officer Jenny Cutright. The timing could be shortened by wet weather or lengthened by dry weather, she said. Carbondale has operated the summer patrols for multiple years running, Cutright said, and it will coordinate efforts with Roaring Fork since their boundaries meet.
Thompson said wildfires could materialize despite a decent snowpack. Dry conditions and warm spring winds can dry out vegetation quickly. Last spring and early summer was warm and dry.
“I was afraid we were going to lose a subdivision or even a town,” he said.
Even with up to six inches of fresh snow at the ski areas Tuesday night, the snowpack around the Roaring Fork watershed is a mixed bag. Here are snowpack levels reported Wednesday morning from automated Snotel sites operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Independence Pass: 85% of median
Ivanhoe (Fryingpan): 117%
Kiln (Fryingpan): 98%
Schofield Pass (Crystal): 124%
McClure Pass (Crystal): 82%
The summer monsoon appeared later than usual in July and temporarily eased conditions. If this spring is wet and the monsoon shows up around July 4, Thompson said he will sleep better at night, but he’s not counting on getting his rest.
“July and August in Colorado, all bets are off,” Thompson said.
There’s ample evidence of how quickly conditions can change. The NCAR fire broke out near Boulder this week even with snow still scattered on the affected terrain. Another fire broke out outside the mountain town of Estes Park.
Every fire department in the Roaring Fork Valley offers its expertise to assess individual properties for risk and provides advice on how to lower potential for fire overtaking a home. Thompson said fires in Colorado, California and elsewhere show time and again that cedar fencing that abuts a house and even connects houses is a recipe for disaster. In addition, planting juniper bushes against a house is like storing 5-gallon cans of gas along a structure.
Thompson urged people to sign up for emergency alert services offered by the counties of the Roaring Fork Valley. That’s a key way to stay informed about evacuations for wildfires.
Roaring Fork Fire Rescue will also work with Eagle and Pitkin counties to provide reverse 911 calls to landlines and special notifications, similar to Amber Alerts for abducted or missing children, on cell phones.
Thompson said drought has extended fire season to six months in Colorado’s high country. The season starts in April and lasts until ample snowpack accumulates, typically in October or November.
“There’s no safe time,” he said. “We’re ready to have fires. I’m always uneasy.”
Crews zero in on small wildland fire near Lazy Glen in Roaring Fork Valley
Fire crews worked a small wildland fire Friday in the Roaring Fork Valley near the Lazy Glen community and should have it completely out by Saturday evening, a fire official said Friday night.
The fire is on Bureau of Land Management property and is not easily accessible. A U.S. Forest Service ground crew is on scene but is waiting for weather to pass before they go back up Friday night, Jim Genung, fire management officer with the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, said about 6 p.m.
He said a lightning strike Thursday night in the area is the cause of the fire, but they could not find it when they went up in the evening. He said the fire “kicked up with the winds” that came through Friday afternoon. It has burned about a half-acre but was “taking on a good rain right now,” Genung said.
When the weather clears the ground crew will return to the burn area, and another team will join Saturday and there should be 10-12 federal firefighters on the scene, he said.
“Weather permitting, we should have it buttoned by (Saturday) evening,” Genung said.
Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson said earlier Friday the fire is to the north of the Lazy Glen community (near mile marker 26 on Highway 82), a few hundred yards up the hill and burning in pinon and juniper trees. He said no structures are threatened and there are no evacuations.
“We’ve used two small air tankers and they’ve boxed it in, but the fire is going to be visible tonight and most of tomorrow depending on how much moisture we get,” Thompson said from the scene. “If you driving up Holland Hills and Lazy Glen, it’s in your face.”
Genung said the two single-engine air tankers were able to each make two drops and form a box around the fire.
The lightning that moved through with Thursday night’s storms caused four or five fires in the region, Genung said. He said crews worked Friday morning on a small fire west of the Grizzly Creek burn scar, and then other small fires in western Garfield County and on BLM land.
This is a developing story that will be updated.
Sylvan Fire at 19% containment Monday morning; weather should help firefighters this week
The Sylvan Fire, which started June 20, in Eagle County has reached 19% containment and remains at 3,775 acres as of Monday morning, according to Incident Commander Dan Dallas.
“The weather this week should favor continued progress on fireline construction and preparation for future burning operations,” Dallas said in a Monday morning update. “A few new crews have arrived, and two additional hotshot crews are expected soon. This will help with completing some of the more difficult portions of the fireline.”
Crews have completed a direct fireline from Sylvan Lake westward to the powerline road. South of Sylvan Lake, firefighters are prepping the primary containment line along the moist, grassy stream bottom parallel to the Eagle-Thomasville Road.
Crews are also working to contain the portion of the fire that moved south of the Mount Thomas Trail and ridgeline. Once they have completed this section, they will then clear an indirect fireline extending westward along Mount Thomas Trail as a contingency against southward spread of the fire in the steep, inaccessible portions that are unsafe for crews to work in.
Dallas said the favorable weather over the weekend and more moisture on the way is helping moderate the situation.
“Rain received in recent days will continue to keep fuels moist while moderating fire behavior. Fire spread will be limited and consisting mostly of smoldering and creeping,” Dallas said.
Though lightning is suspected as cause of the fire, the incident is still under investigation.
For the latest information about pre-evacuation or evacuation notices or fire restrictions on non-Federal lands, visit www.ecemergency.org. Officials are also reminding the public that wildfires are a No Drone Zone, and if you fly, they can’t.
This is a developing story that will be updated.
UPDATES: Sylvan Fire containment at 10% going into Sunday night
David Boyd with the U.S. Forest Service said containment on the Sylvan Fire remains at 10 percent as crews headed into nightfall on Sunday.
The wildfire burning south of Eagle remains the largest priority fire in the Rocky Mountain region, with 361 personnel currently working the nearly 6-square mile blaze. Although still under investigation, the fire is suspected to have been caused by lightning.
Boyd said the size on the fire remains unchanged, at 3,775 acres, but it has moved slightly.
“Some of that is growth here and there, but some of that is the mapping catching up,” Boyd said. “Weather is helping us out, a lot.”
High humidity and spotted showers, combined with the occasional downpour, have assisted firefighters in recent days.
About a third of an inch of rain fell on the fire on Saturday and Sunday morning, bringing the accumulation in recent days to nearly an inch total.
The fireline, which travels from Sylvan Lake westward to the powerline road, represents the first bit of containment from crews.
“Ten percent of the line is where we want it to be,” Boyd said. “The weather has moderated the behavior of the fire, which has allowed us to make a lot of progress, continuing to build lines and strengthen them. We’ve got a few more days of weather like this, and that will be very helpful.”
Boyd said the overhead views of the fire show areas of smoldering, with heavy smoke, indicating that if the humidity drops again, and the winds pick up, the fire will become more active.
And some of the fires that may be taking place once the rain stops might be conducted by the crews on scene, as well, in an effort to improve fire lines, Boyd said.
“There’s some areas where we’re going to either light some areas ourselves, when the conditions are right, and have that burn to the firelines, or allow the fire to get to places where we can effectively hold it,” Boyd said. “Even though weather has been really moderate, we still have some days coming, in the coming days, where will see more fire activity.”
The wet weather can be good and bad for firefighters, as the water helps put down the blaze and helps crews build fire lines.
“But the wet, slippery conditions make the work more difficult and increase safety concerns for driving and foot travel,” said Dan Dallas, the incident commander for the Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Management Team assigned to the blaze. “Fortunately, no serious injuries have occurred thus far on the incident, and we continue to make public and firefighter safety our highest priority.”
During a Friday evening Facebook community meeting, Rob Powell, the operations section chief for the fire, noted that the resources at risk — an Xcel Energy transmission line and the Eagle and Gypsum watersheds — earned the priority designation.
The Sylvan Fire has split into two main branches. Crews are attacking one branch along the Eagle Thomasville Road, which will be the primary fire line.
“We’re working really hard on that 400 road and getting that dug in, so that the fire doesn’t push harder and higher when it dries out,” said Michelle Kelly a public information officer working the fire.
Kelly called the Sylvan Fire a “mosaic fire” with patches of green and black throughout the forest — and those green spots could become troublesome in the coming days when it is expected to dry out.
She said fire officials are always cautious about putting containment line on a map, wanting to be absolutely certain that an ember can’t cross a fire line when temperatures dry out or wind kicks up — which is what happened when the fire had its big blowup earlier in the week.
“We really want to make sure that we’re cold trailing, and that there’s not something like that could cross the road,” she said.