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Wildfire season is here

Ryan Hoffman
rhoffman@citizentelegram.com
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 |

Wildfire season is off to a slow start in Garfield County, but a series of small brush fires in Rifle Sunday served as a staunch reminder that despite the wet months of April and May, conditions have dried to the point where it does not take much for flames to spread quickly.

The first fire was reported around 3:40 p.m. at Rifle-Garfield Regional Airport. It was started after a weedwacker somehow ignited some dead vegetation, according to Maria Piña, Colorado River Fire Rescue spokesperson. Firefighters were able to contain it to 1 acre.

Nearly 90 minutes later, crews responded to another fire just east of Whiteriver Avenue near the Rifle Police Station. No structures were damaged and there were no injuries as a result of the fire, which is believed to have started near the bike path. As of press time the cause was still under investigation.

Firefighters were able to contain the flames to 2.22 acres, thanks in part to a certain amount of luck. The fire was almost directly behind the Colorado River Fire Rescue station in Rifle, allowing firefighters to quickly access the fire. Relatively calm winds also worked in firefighters’ favor.

Had either or both of those factors been different, the fire could have been much worse, especially considering the fire’s location in downtown, said Orrin Moon, Colorado River Fire Rescue fire marshal.

The open space was densely populated with a large amount of dried out debris, which allowed the fire to spread quickly. At one point the flames were 15 feet high, according to Moon.

“We can just tell from the recent fire that things are drying out,” Moon said.

Both cases represent a real threat that fire officials have warned about for several months now. An unusually wet spring helped delay the wildfire season — following a dry winter — and set the course for what officials continue to project as an average year for wildfires.

Rifle recorded 4.26 inches of precipitation in May, well above the monthly average of 2.75 inches, said Dennis Phillips, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. Colorado as a whole experienced the wettest May in roughly 120 years.

However, that was followed by a hot and mostly dry June. Rifle received about half of its monthly average of 1 inch of precipitation.

The combination of late moisture followed by a warm drying period has caused an increase in the amount of fuel, said Doug Paul, fire mitigation and education specialist with the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit.

“It’s still kind of an average season right now, but with these high temperatures it will dry (the fuel) up quicker,” he said.

That fact coupled with the nondiscriminatory nature of wildfires increases the importance of mitigation work, especially in subdivisions and around homes, said Glenwood Springs Fire Department Fire Marshal Ron Biggers.

“This is the time to do it,” he said. “When smoke is in the air it’s a little too late.”

firewise

Biggers is leading the charge to establish Firewise Communities in Glenwood Springs and beyond. The designation through the National Fire Protection Agency recognizes communities that develop and implement fire mitigation plans.

In the past year, Biggers has helped two subdivisions in Glenwood Springs with obtaining Firewise certification, but he would like to see more.

The Glenwood Highlands Homeowners Association committed $15,000 in 2014 to mitigation work on Highlands Drive, the only road in and out of the subdivision. It received $15,000 is matching grant money from the state for the project.

The subdivision was rated an extreme risk area in the 2007 Glenwood Springs Fire Protection District Wildland Urban Interface Community Wildfire Protection Plan — a comprehensive assessment of potential risks designed to help with prevention and mitigation efforts.

“Everyone recognizes where we live, so we’re all pretty aware that that’s one of our biggest threats,” said Michael Shea, HOA board member.

The Canyon Creek Estates HOA, is in the initial stages of receiving a Firewise Community designation, said Jeff Leonard, HOA president. Residents in the subdivision, which was rated high risk in the 2007 assessment, largely support the mitigation efforts.

“They’re very supportive, as they should be,” Leonard said. “We’re all at risk and it’s not just our personal property at risk, there could be lives at risk.”

Still, the effort has yet to catch on elsewhere in Glenwood Springs or in western Garfield County.

Moon said there might be a subdivision in New Castle that is interested in becoming a Firewise Community, but it is too early to tell. Creating a plan and putting money toward it — both are requirements for receiving Firewise certification — requires an active HOA, Moon said.

Ideally, Biggers would like to see a patchwork of Firewise communities woven together into a council spanning across the county. Such a council could greatly mitigate the risks to homeowners and improve safety conditions for firefighters when they do have to respond to a wildfire, Biggers said. Any communities interested in Firewise certification should contact their local fire department.

For now Biggers and Moon are reminding people to be conscious when participating in activities that have the potential to start a fire.

“The potential is there,” Moon said. “It just takes a heat source in the wrong place at the wrong time to start a wildland fire.”


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