Decades-long drought inspires new firefighting strategies
Carbondale firefighters, water conservationists talk drought impacts
The deep tread of Karl Oliver’s leather boots scored the rust-brown dirt Monday morning atop the Red Canyon fire scar.
An engine boss with the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District’s Initial Attack team, Oliver scanned the northern horizon.
“On patrol, we tend to look toward the ridgelines for smoke plumes,” Oliver said. “About 20 years ago, I was working with (federal agencies) on the High Aspen Fire, and we saw a crown fire, a fire that runs through the crowns of trees, in an aspen grove. That was really the beginning of the change in fire behavior we’ve been seeing.”
Aspens are more resistant to fires than other tree species, and crown fires are rare, he explained.
Ryan Marostica, Oliver’s engineer — a firefighter who drives a fire engine — fiddled with multiple weather-reading instruments on the rear bumper of their Type 6 brush truck, a vehicle designed to punch through grass fires and traverse narrow, steep roads.
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“We call this spinning,” Marostica said as he twirled a pair of thermometers, known as a wet-dry bulb hygrometer, for nearly a minute. “We match these readings, plus our elevation, against a chart to determine our relative humidity, which helps us find the PIG.”
Oliver explained PIG refers to the Probability of Ignition, or likelihood a lightning strike in the area might grow larger than a few smoldering embers.
The fire district’s mission is to “keep small fires small,” CRFPD Deputy Chief Mike Wagner said during the morning briefing.
As an initial attack team, Marostica and Oliver investigate areas with recent lightning activity, spin up a PIG and look for signs of smoke in hopes of catching a wildfire in its infancy.
A clutch of sunflower blossoms bobbed in a light breeze beneath the blackened skeletons of Gambel oak trees as Marostica called out his instrument readings:
Temperature: 79 Fahrenheit
Relative humidity: 20%
Elevation: 7,147 feet
Less than 50% of fuels shaded: No
Fine Dead Fuel Moisture: 5%
Oliver punched the figures into his smartphone, then responded, “The PIG is at 60%.”
The long drought
Wildfire season once lasted three to five months, Oliver recalled. But, in recent years, it’s a year-round event.
“Fires are burning hotter, and fire activity is becoming more unpredictable,” he said. “It’s getting harder to put guys on the line, and more and more, wildland firefighting is being done from the air.”
Although recent monsoonal rains caused a number of problems for local businesses, travelers and the Colorado Department of Transportation, the mudslides’ silver lining was lifting Garfield County from the deepest level of drought recorded by the U.S. Drought Monitor — if only by a single level.
“Garfield County has been in the level called ‘exceptional drought’ for most of the summer,” said Lindsay DeFrates, a Colorado River Water Conservation District spokesperson. “But we recently downgraded from the drought monitor grade D4 to D3, ‘extreme drought.’”
DeFrates said wildfire and water conservation go hand in hand, because burn scars above waterways can impact water quality.
“These two things literally flow together,” she said.
The conservation district is working with the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor water quality near burn scars on the Western Slope to help inform water managers’ decisions throughout the year.
Even with the monsoonal rains, however, a recent river district newsletter painted a bleak picture of the Western Slope’s water supply.
“Streamflow in most West Slope watersheds plummeted to historic lows, while water temperatures skyrocketed as ambient air temperatures broke records across the state in June and July,” the newsletter reported, “resulting in fish-kill events on the Upper Colorado near Kremmling in late June.”
DeFrates said near-average snowpack in the Rocky Mountains wasn’t enough to break the drought because soil moisture is at an extreme deficit.
Once the snow melts, the water first quenches the parched soil before trickling into Garfield County’s water supplies. With soil moisture levels so low, DeFrates said some forecasting models are predicting the Western Slope needs about 120 inches of snow or 12 inches of rain before the area climbs out of drought conditions. The caveat is that precipitation needs to be consistent.
“The only consistent thing about Western Slope precipitation is its inconsistency,” DeFrates said.
If the rain were to suddenly fall evenly everywhere it’s needed, she said the Colorado River would still need to serve many towns, cities and states across the west, so reservoirs would be slow to refill and the drought impacts would remain a challenge for years to come.
A red-tailed hawk with haggard wing tips glided over Oliver’s head as he walked along the former Red Canyon fire line.
“The rains we got in July helped out a lot,” he said. “But the extra moisture meant the vegetation grew taller, and that’s drying out now.”
More fuel, more fire, Oliver explained.
Vegetation in a drought, by definition, contains less moisture, which lowers its ignition point and causes it to burn hotter.
“As the fire front moves forward, it’s preheating all the vegetation ahead of it,” Oliver said. “If the fire behavior is extensive enough, it creates its own storms, behavior and winds. It gets to a point where no one can be close enough to do anything about it.”
Humidity helps reduce fire activity, so wildland firefighters are learning to work at night when the humidity is higher. During the day, operations can grind to a halt during the “death zone,” the hottest period of the day, which can range from 1-5 p.m., Oliver said.
Prior to the region-spanning droughts, relying primarily on aerial operations and fighting fires at night were relatively unheard of strategies, he said.
With 400,000 acres to cover between Marble and High Aspen Ranch, the fire district dispatches its firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians from five fire stations using two dispatch networks across two counties.
Crews work 48 hours on the clock, then take 96 off. Their duties run the gamut.
“Being a firefighter in a rural fire district means you have to try to be good at everything,” Oliver said. “The bulk of our calls are for emergency medical services.”
In years past, the fire protection district was primarily staffed by volunteers. Nowadays, they use a combined staff of paid and volunteer first responders. Marostica said the volunteer program gave him and many others an entry point into the agency, which later opened the door for full-time employment.
The noontime sun high above their heads, Oliver and Marostica tucked away their spot-weather forecasting equipment and hopped back into the brush truck.
Their eyes scanned the treeline as their minds turned to lunch.
“We can be out here ‘til 5 or 6 at night,” Oliver said, a grin growing at the corners of his lips. “Sometimes we pass the time by talking about work, but mostly we talk about food.”
Initially named the Fisher Creek Fire, the Red Canyon Fire ignited Aug. 19, 2020, near Garfield County Road 115 and Fisher Cemetery Road.
Ryan Marostica, a firefighter with the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District, was among the first on scene.
“It was weird at first, because the fire appeared to be moving downhill,” Marostica remembered. “Fires typically go uphill, but I guess the slope was gentle enough that the wind was able to push the fire along.”
Although uncommon, the fire’s behavior was a boon to residents in the area. Few residences laid in the fire’s southerly path, but to the north — uphill — several homes were at risk, Marostica said.
Nearby, the Grizzly Creek Fire raged, and before long he said the incident command team at Grizzly Creek diverted resources to quickly stamp out the human-caused Red Canyon Fire, which engulfed about 40 acres compared to the Grizzly Creek Fire’s more than 30,000 acres.
Returning to the area Monday, Marostica and his CRFPD Initial Attack Team engine boss, Karl Oliver, assessed the vegetation regrowth in the area.
“This is exactly what we’re looking for,” Oliver said, pointing out a vibrant undergrowth on the burn scar. “These Gambel oak trees are perfectly designed for wildfires. So long as their roots aren’t scorched, they come back in a matter of years.”
The county road acted as a fire line, preventing most of the flames from spreading farther south into a group of cabins and a mountain meadow.
A stack of scorched telephone poles and a few dead trees were all that remained on the south side of the road to remind passersby of the blaze. To the north, however, a forest of blackened, leafless trees bore a sharp contrast to the new growth at their roots.
“Sunflowers, fireweed and thistle all love these disturbed soils,” Oliver said, kicking at the dirt to expose a layer of ash less than an inch below the surface. “If all goes well, this area will recover in probably about five years.”
Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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