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Dry, windy conditions put fire and health officials on alert

Post Independent Photo/Jim Noelker
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Southern California isn’t the only state experiencing strong winds and dry, fire-season conditions. Colorado is, too.

Since Thursday, residents of the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys have had a first-hand look at smoke and haze from the fires that have ravaged Southern California. Those fires have burned more than 644,000 acres so far.

Strong winds caused by two low-pressure systems blew California’s smoke into southern Utah and western Colorado Thursday night, blanketing the area with a thick, almost fog-like vapor.



“The California smoke got up into the jet stream, and settled into the river valleys,” said Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Mike Piper.

Smoky skies aren’t the only fire issues Coloradans need to worry about. Colorado is dangerously dry ” and recent wind gusts from a series of erratic weather patterns are putting health and fire officials on alert.



The haze alarmed some people enough to call the Garfield County Public Health office.

“We’ve received quite a few calls,” said Mary Meisner, the Garfield County Public Health nursing director. “People are concerned about air quality.”

Meisner said her office has issued a health alert in response to the California smoke.

“We’re recommending that people not go outside unless they have to,” said Meisner.

“And those who have asthma or other acute lung problems should talk with their family physicians if they’re having difficulty breathing. Children attending school should be allowed to use their inhalers and to stay indoors at recess if appropriate,” she added.

Garfield County’s health alert is one of two official public warnings issued this week. Sue Froeschle, public information officer for White River National Forest, said a red-flag wildfire warning is in effect for western Colorado and eastern Utah.

With the fire ban lifted in Colorado, officials use the red flag warning to warn people of hazardous fire conditions, which include gusty winds, dry timber and vegetation, and low humidity.

“A red-flag warning means any spark can set a fire,” Froeschle said.

The warning couldn’t happen soon enough.

With Colorado’s third elk-and-deer rifle-hunting season beginning Saturday, Nov. 1, those venturing into the forest must be extra vigilant. And while the red-flag warning doesn’t ban campfires, Froeschle is hopeful that many people using the backcountry will opt not to build them.

“It’s tricky, because for a lot of hunters, having a campfire is part of the whole experience of going hunting,” said Froeschle. “The problem is, campfires are the leading cause of wildfires.”

Other sparks ” from vehicles, a match, a chainsaw or a burning cigarette ” can quickly start a fire under red-flag conditions, too.

“We’re cautioning hunters to be extremely alert,” said Pat Tucker, area wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “The higher you go into the backcountry, the more extreme the fire danger is.”

Piper warned residents to be careful until the area gets some moisture.

“Just flicking a cigarette into a median with dry cheat grass could take out a number of acres,” Piper said.

It’s so dry, “some fields look like they are snow covered, but it’s dry grass,” Piper said.

Froeschle said the fire danger is extreme in the high country, and high in the mid-region.

“We’ve had six to seven fires in the last week between Glenwood and Vail,” she said. “Now, there’s a wildfire reported in Gunnison, and another in Old Snowmass.” (See accompanying story.)

As of late Thursday afternoon, Froeschle said the Old Snowmass fire was about 10 acres. The fire started around 12 p.m. More than 55 firefighters were working on the blaze situated on both private and Bureau of Land Management public land. As of press time, evacuations were beginning up Snowmass Creek.

Another small, one-acre wildfire ignited early Thursday morning near the West Bank subdivision southeast of Glenwood Springs, but firefighters were able to contain the fire quickly. (See accompanying story.)

Colorado has had an unusual October at least as far as the weather is concerned, said Chris Kuoco, senior forecaster at the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

“It’s been so much warmer than normal for a good part of October,” said Kuoco. “Usually we see cooler temperatures, plus rain and snow by now. We’re not dealing with lightning, but there’s an awful lot of dangerous fuels out there.”

“It’s abnormally summer-like,” added Froeschle.

That can be problematic with hunting season in full swing, which means a lot of people are out in the woods during fire-season conditions ” without a fire ban.

“We’re really trying to get the message out there for everyone to be careful,” said Froeschle. “We’re increasing our hunter patrols during this season.”

Meantime, the forecast doesn’t look very promising for any significant precipitation any time soon, and erratic winds are expected to continue into next week, according to Kuoco.

“We’re expecting a front to come in by Sunday to cool things off,” said Kuoco. “And we might get some snow in the higher elevations later next week.”

But it won’t be enough to put an end to this year’s second fire season.

“We don’t just need a dusting of snow,” said Froeschle. “We need a good covering, with snow that’s going to stick on the ground.”

” Staff writer Lynn Burton contributed to this report.

Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext. 518

cclick@postindependent.com


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