Brush fires highlight high fire risk |

Brush fires highlight high fire risk

Ryan Hoffman
Colorado River Fire Rescue firefighters douse the smoldering ground where a fire burned 2.22 acres east of Whiteriver Avenue behind the Rifle Police Station Sunday evening.
Ryan Hoffman / Citizen Telegram |

Local officials are urging caution following two recent brush fires that demonstrate heightened fire dangers in the region.

The call for increased awareness comes as fire-friendly conditions rise and as many people prepare to enjoy the July 4 holiday — a time when some will celebrate with fireworks, despite a statewide ban on devices that leave the ground.

“We would really like people to be extremely careful,” said Orrin Moon, fire marshal with Colorado River Fire Rescue.

In the past two weeks, CRFR and other agencies responded to brush fires in the area that started from seemingly innocuous activities, including a fire along Interstate 70 between the Rulison and west Rifle exits on June 15.

That fire burned approximately 31 acres, and, while it is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause, investigators believe it likely originated from a blown tire. The rim likely scraped against the pavement, causing sparks that carried to nearby grass, said Rob Jones, interim fire chief with CRFR.

Four days latter, CRFR and four other agencies battled a blaze near Rulison. When everything was over, the fire burned nearly 77 acres and destroyed an unoccupied structure that was serving as storage. Crews did manage to save one shed, along with the belongings inside, that was on fire, said Leif Sackett, interim operations division chief with CRFR.

The fire started from a welding spark.

“It goes to show how dry it really is, because you have that one little spark, and an hour later you have 77 acres burnt,” Sackett said, adding the caveat that a red flag warning was in place that day.

The point, Jones said, is that activities that might have been completely safe just a few days ago may now pose serious fire risks.

“All of these fires we have had are all accidental, and they happen so quick,” Jones stated. “Each one of them were doing what they were probably doing two weeks ago, and it’s so much drier now than it was.”

Excluding areas of higher elevation, those conditions extend to most of the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, an area that stretches from the Utah border to the Eisenhower Tunnel, said Rob Berger, unit fire management officer for the unit.

Following a wet spring, conditions have turned warmer and drier through June. The Rifle Garfield County Airport recorded 0.2 inches of precipitation for the month as of Monday. The monthly average at the airport is 0.95 inches, said Jim Pringle, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

“If you thought it was drier than normal, so far you are correct,” Pringle said.

Similarly the average daily temperature of 70.8 degrees recorded at the airport is 5.3 degrees hotter than normal for June.

With more long-term predictions pointing to a continuation of current conditions, Berger said he expects the number of fires to start increasing.

“We’re just really jumping into what is the beginning of the fire season. We expect the next 30 days to become more of what we classify as the meat of the fire season,” he said.

And although the “meat of the fire season” is around the corner, Berger said the number of fires this year already exceeds last year.

“Last year just had pretty consistent moisture throughout the fire season,” he said.

The concern is that the more mild conditions last year could lead to more lax attitudes. The reality, Berger said, is that conditions change from year to year, and in some cases week to week.

“We have to know we haven’t had the moisture we had last year.”

In addition to observing all the laws associated with fireworks, Berger and others recommend people to be more cognizant of conditions when doing tasks such as mowing a lawn.

Last year, CRFR responded to a fire near the Rifle Garfield County Airport that originated from a weed trimmer. Luckily, Lief said, crews contained the burn to about an acre.

“Just be careful,” he said. “Think about what you’re doing … know that it’s hot and dry and be cognizant of what you’re doing.”

Jones also recommends having water or some other fire retardant close by when working outside, and Moon suggests moving all dry fuels away from work areas and homes.

Berger extended those warnings to those recreating on public lands.

“Be cautious with everything you’re doing on the public lands, and make sure that you’re not being overly risky with anything you’re doing out there.”

As for the weather leading up to July 4, Pringle said substantial chances of moisture will increase Thursday and linger through the start of the weekend. Dry and warmer conditions should return Sunday, leading up to what looks like a hot and dry holiday Monday.

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