Dry conditions spark wildfire concerns throughout Garfield County | PostIndependent.com

Dry conditions spark wildfire concerns throughout Garfield County

A Colorado River Fire Rescue crew removes dead fuels at Elk Run subdivision in New Castle during the week of March 14.
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TO LEARN MORE

The Pitkin County Emergency Management office has extensive information online for creating defensible space around homes and property, protecting your family and protecting your home at www.pitkinwildfire.com.

The Colorado State Forest Service has extensive online material on wildfire preparedness and mitigation at www.colorado.gov/pacific/dfpc/fire-preparedness-and-mitigation.

Firefighters and emergency managers across Garfield County and up the Roaring Fork Valley are increasingly concerned about the approaching wildfire season because of the low snowpack level and high drought rating.

“Early and scary” is how Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson described it to the Post Independent.

“All of the long-range forecasts, all the way through September, are reporting above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation,” he said. “Already, the vegetation on the valley floors has really low moisture content, and there’s not a lot of snowpack up high.”

Colorado River Fire Rescue Fire Prevention Division Chief Orrin Moon said it is hard to say what the conditions will be like in a month or two, but “everybody is gearing up a little extra heavy this season.”

“We are preparing for worst-case scenario,” he added. “I’m not a weatherman, but we are concerned with the lack of moisture.”

Major wildfires have hit the lower Roaring Fork Valley as early as April in past years, and Garfield County has a history of devastating fires during the heat of summer.

The Catherine fire in April 2008 swept from ranchlands along County Road 100 east of Carbondale to Catherine Store in no time, posing risk to 150 homes in the bottomlands, closing Highway 82 and threatening to run up into Missouri Heights.

The South Canyon Fire outside of Glenwood Springs, also known as the Storm King Fire, killed 14 wildland firefighters in July 1994. The Coal Seam Fire in June 2002 burned 29 homes in West Glenwood Springs. Also that summer, the Panorama fire in Missouri Heights scorched 1,500 acres, destroyed two houses, damaged two others and forced evacuations.

The Red Canyon Fire just south and east of Glenwood Springs in August of 2013 also forced evacuations, and for a time threatened the eastern edge of town.

With burn season typically now until Memorial Day, CRFR chief Moon did said that the dry conditions may force the control-burn season to be cut short.

“We don’t know if we will be able to go that long if conditions are what they are now,” he added. “We may have to shut burns down due to conditions. We are asking people to get ag and control burns done as soon as possible.”

He emphasized the need for residents to get burn permits now and added that they should all be done by noon.

“We are finding that when people burn on cloudy days, the smoke doesn’t dissipate,” he explained. “We are asking everybody to be good neighbors with smoke from control burns and ask them to be done burning by noon.”

Prescribed Burns scheduled

Federal fire officials from the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire and Aviation Management Unit West Zone are hoping conditions will be ideal in the next several weeks to complete two prescribed fires on Bureau of Land Management public lands in Mesa and western Garfield counties, according to a press release from the BLM.

“We will only ignite these prescribed fires if conditions are ideal for a safe, effective burn, as well as for good smoke dispersal away from area communities,” Jeff Phillips, fire management specialist with the Upper Colorado River Fire Unit, explained in the release. “We evaluate weather, moisture and fuel conditions before deciding whether to proceed, and human safety is always our top priority.”

Prescribed fires reduce dense vegetation and other fuels to lower the risk of large wildfires and stimulate new vegetation growth that benefits wildlife.

Firefighters are planning the following burns to reduce natural fuels and improve wildlife habitat:

• The 370-acre Horse Pasture Draw prescribed burn approximately 22 miles north of Loma in Garfield County

• The 200-acre Nick/Bald Mountain prescribed burn nine miles south of Molina

“Fire managers have developed a detailed prescribed fire plan and obtained smoke permits from state of Colorado for each of the planned burns. Residents may observe smoke during these burns,” according to the release.

In addition, three prescribed burns are planned on area U.S. Forest Service lands this spring, including three in Garfield County. They include 727 acres in June Creek and 2,700 acres in the West Divide Creek area, both located about 14 miles south of Silt, and 1,500 acres in French Creek, about 8 miles east of Glenwood Springs.

Spring Forecast

Basalt-Snowmass Village Fire Chief Scott Thompson told The Aspen Times he remains hopeful that the weather will turn around and moisture levels will soar.

Right now it is not looking so good. The snowpack in the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River is at 65 percent of normal.

The U.S. Drought Monitor’s latest state assessment March 13 showed the entire Roaring Fork Valley in “severe drought.” East of Aspen to the Continental Divide is considered in moderate drought.

The worst scenario is for trees to become so dry they get stressed, Thompson said.

“We have a decadent, diseased forest all around us,” he said. “Someday we’re going to have the big one.”

Glenwood Springs Post Independent Editor John Stroud contributed to this report.