Fire risk persists for Garfield County, West despite recent rains |

Fire risk persists for Garfield County, West despite recent rains

A rafting company floats down the Colorado River past the confluence of the Roaring Fork River near Two Rivers Park.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Monsoon season started early in Garfield County and the Western Slope, but fire season isn’t over yet. 

“The early arrival of the monsoon patterns basically negated our wildland fire activity, especially during the month of July, which is typically a pretty active month,” said Gary Tillotson, Glenwood Springs Fire Chief. “So yeah, grateful for that, but it’s probably too early to get too relaxed.”

The number of red flag alerts issued for fire danger this year are so far lower than typical for Garfield County, but it’s a different story elsewhere in the state, said Tom Renwick, meteorologist in the National Weather Service.

“We have only had nine red flags this year,” he said.

Southwestern, lower elevation Colorado has seen 20-27 red flags this year, while there have only been two red flag warnings in Northwest Colorado.

The nine recorded this year were only in the region west of New Castle, while east of New Castle has not received any. Last year, there were 18 red flag warnings west of New Castle and seven east of New Castle. 

 The past few weeks have been more humid than previous years with 1.67 inches in precipitation recorded at Rifle Airport since June 1, in comparison to the average 1.42 inches, according to Matthew Aleksa, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. 

Precipitation for the year is still below average. Since Jan. 1, the Rifle Garfield County Airport recorded 3.91 inches, which is below the average of 5.63 inches, Aleksa said. 

“We are still in a drought,” he said.

Tillotson said that he had his fire restrictions weekly call Tuesday morning. There have been several fire starts in the last week throughout the Upper Colorado River area, which includes Eagle, Garfield and Mesa counties in general. He said that they were all caused by lightning and not people. 

“When lightning storms move through the area, multiple lightning strike fires can be started, and they can be extremely hard to recognize or find given the fact that they might strike a tree or something, and it may smolder for a few days until the atmospheric conditions are drier and hotter and something pops up,” Tillotson said. 

With the help of new technology, the fire department has had some help pinpointing smoldering fires from lightning strikes. Tillotson said that after a lightning storm moves through an area, an order gets placed to have a multi-mission aircraft from the Division of Fire Prevention and Control fly the general area with thermal imaging capability.

“They can help detect some of those otherwise unidentified lightning strike fires. That’s been very helpful in recent years,” Tillotson said. “The best strategy for a wildfire is early detection, and early and sufficient initial attack. Through that technology, if we can identify a smoldering tree somewhere on a hilltop with that thermal imaging technology and then get firefighters out there more quickly before it has a chance to grow or become a larger problem.”

Renwick said The Climate Prediction Center predicts roughly the next week will see an above normal chance for precipitation with equal chances in the next three months.

“According to the models in the Climate Prediction Center, it looks pretty active in terms of their storm activity and rainfall potential,” Aleksa said. “So more hope on the horizon, you know. We’re still looking like August is going to trend more towards above normal precipitation than below.”

Tillotson still wants people to be cautious and be mindful of particular ignition sources like charcoal grills and dragging chains.

“Just because we’ve had some rain and we haven’t …, at least within our Fire Protection District, … had any significant wildfire activity, I don’t want people to start being complacent. We still need to be careful with all of our ignition sources,” he said. “We just need to be careful with fire, and when it seems like it’s been rainy and wet, it’s easy to get complacent to stop paying attention.”

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