Forest ranger: Fire danger average this year

A clear line marks edge of the Lake Christine Fire burn area on top of Basalt Mountain in this October 2018 photo.
Thomas Phippen / Post Independent

Fire danger in Garfield County and the surrounding region is “average” this year, Forest Service District Ranger Kevin Warner told county commissioners Monday.

In his presentation to Garfield County commissioners, Warner, who took over as the Aspen-Sopris district ranger in December, said weather forecasts are generally good in terms of wildfire risk.

“We’re looking at average temps, average precipitation, but with variable, shifting patterns,” Warner said.

The varied patterns mean it’s unlikely to generate sustained warm and dry periods, which create ideal forest fire conditions.

Weather forecasters are predicting more of what the region has seen in recent months, with a few weeks of sun, then pulses of moisture or cooling.

“(That) is pretty generally good for spring, as far as keeping the potential for wildfires down, because you get a little pulse of moisture in there, it pulls the fuel moistures up,” Warner said.

Colorado’s 2019 wildfires were below average despite a dry summer and fall, thanks to high snowpack. Still, more than 40,000 acres burned in 857 forest fires across the state, mostly on national forest land.

That was nothing compared to 2018, when 475,000 acres of Colorado went up in flames.

An average fire year for Colorado, at least using information from the decade ending in 2009, still hews close to 100,000 burned acres. That’s double the average in the 1990s, which saw a decade average of 21,796 acres burned each year.

The White River National Forest is finishing up a comprehensive survey of areas suitable fuel reduction, and should finish it later this year, Warner said.

In the meantime, there are areas of Garfield County where the Forest Service plans to conduct prescribed burns up to 9,600 acres in Garfield County.

Those areas include French Creek north of Glenwood Canyon, and Cherry Creek north of Harvey Gap, and West Divide Creek south of Silt.

The prescribed burns are far less environmentally damaging than a wildfire, Warner said.

“Most likely those (areas) are going to burn, one way or another,” Warner said. “You see less climate impacts out of small controlled fires, as opposed to a flare-up.”

But in terms of other hazardous fuels reduction methods, Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said he would support harvesting methods.

The biomass plant, for instance, uses wood chips shipped from Saratoga Forest Management in Wyoming, Jankovsky said.

“If it’s here, available locally, I’d like to at least support the plants there,” Jankovsky said.

Many of the areas planned for mitigation this year are aspen mix vegetation, with some conifer, Warner said, and there’s less of a market for those wood types.

Other political bodies in the region might be less likely to support harvesting, Jankovsky said.

“You’ll find a different political climate here than maybe Pitkin County for a lot of the fuels reduction you may consider standard,” Jankovsky said.

“There’s a lot of pressure, in my opinion, from the up-valley folks, on how the forest should be managed,” he added.

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