Weekend rains offer little relief for Garfield County fire danger
Post Independent intern
The refreshing rains over Father’s Day weekend did little to douse the fire danger across western Colorado. In fact, lightning storms may have caused more harm than good, say area fire and law enforcement officials.
Garfield County and Glenwood Springs city officials are warning open fire-users to remain cautious as the county continues with the stage 1 fire ban, while the city has enacted stage 2 restrictions.
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said in his semi-regular Facebook livestream “Just the Facts” that a stage 1 fire ban is not uncommon for Garfield County this time of year, and there is some question about whether to raise the countywide ban to stage 2.
Glenwood Springs, meanwhile, did issue a stage 2 fire ban over the weekend due to raised fire concerns.
“Even though we had some nice rain, it doesn’t change things,” Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson said. “We still need to be very vigilant with our fire.”
A stage 2 fire ban prohibits all open campfires, charcoal fires and stoves, smoking outside enclosed vehicles or buildings, operation of any combustion engines without an approved spark arrestor, welding or spark emitting cutting except for industrial use with a permit, all explosives and all fireworks.
“It’s an unfortunate side-effect of the dry conditions,” Tillotson said of the restrictions.
He said he is particularly concerned about fireworks, especially as county residents grow excited to set off their July 4th firework shows. Legal fireworks can be sold as usual in Garfield County, but users should be aware that they can’t set them off anywhere in Garfield County due to the fire restrictions that are now in place.
Fire authorities are keeping a close watch on local Gambel oak brush moisture levels, which have been rapidly dropping below the average for this time of year. Most of the moisture from the weekend’s rainstorms has already begun to evaporate, and as the grass and foliage dries out again, the concern for wildfires also rise.
According to a report from the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management group, Gambel oak moisture levels in the South Canyon area are at a record low, reaching 106 percent moisture when the norm for June 15 is near 130 percent. Gambel oak near the Crown south of Carbondale has also reached a record low at nearly 130 percent moisture, according to the report.
July 6 will mark the 24th anniversary of the deadly South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain west of Glenwood Springs that claimed the lives of 14 federal wildland firefighters.
Although moisture levels in the summer of 1994 were also extremely low, fire danger in the area did not peak until July, when the fire department usually expects the most fire activity. This year, vegetation moisture levels are already reaching those dangerous percentages.
“We’re set up for some pretty severe fire growth potential, which is why I’m campaigning so hard for people to be careful with fire,” Tillotson said.
The fire department will remain vigilant through July 4, with more firefighters watching for fire activity around and above town, rather than being inside Two Rivers Park monitoring the fireworks display. This will be the first time Glenwood Springs has put on a laser light show as part of the city’s July 4th festivities, instead of the on-again, off-again fireworks show that hinges on the fire danger in a given year.
Sheriff Vallario said the good news is, with this coming monsoon season, more rain is expected eventually throughout mid-summer. At this point, though, the rains are not expected to return in the foreseeable forecast.
“One of the reasons why I really believe we haven’t had a major wildfire in Garfield County for many, many years is because our firefighters are the best,” Vallario said in the video post.
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A report released this month by the Center for Colorado River Studies says that in order to sustainably manage the river in the face of climate change, officials need alternative management paradigms and a different way of thinking compared with the status quo. Estimates about how much water the Upper Colorado River Basin states will use in the future are a problem that needs rethinking, according to the white paper.