Firefighters are preparing for worst in the Rockies
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. – There’s still snow on the ground in Summit County, Colorado, but local firefighters are already preparing for wildfire season, which officials expect will come sooner and last longer this year due to low snowpack and generally dry, windy conditions.
On Sunday, an engine crew from the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District was dispatched to neighboring Eagle County to back up firefighters battling a blaze that ignited in dry grasses and sent up 20-foot flames at its peak.
The fire was extinguished by 7 p.m., and although it was small, it was an early taste of what could prove to be a highly destructive fire season. Eagle County officials told the Vail Daily that they expect an “active” and “long” fire season that could soon prompt fire restrictions.
Summit County firefighters, meanwhile, are gearing up for wildfire season earlier than usual and encouraging residents to do the same by thinning vegetation around their homes, clearing slash piles and making evacuation plans.
“We’re all having our firefighters go through their refresher courses early and we want to encourage our residents to also think about wildfire preparation,” Summit Fire and EMS spokesman Steve Lipsher said.
This winter has been the third driest on record in Colorado, and while Summit’s snowpack is relatively healthy at 88 percent of normal, officials are still preparing for a longer, more destructive fire season than last year’s.
“We think we’ll be quite a bit early as far as fire danger this year,” RWB chief Jim Keating said. “We’re probably going to be considerably ahead of where we were last year, when it got going around the end of June.”
Keating said RWB already has its wildfire gear and vehicles back online and ready to deploy, preparations the agency typically wouldn’t make for at least another month. Given the conditions, some urgency was warranted.
“If we don’t get some continual moisture and these winds stay up, the underbrush is going to dry out really quickly,” Keating said. “The low snowpack also plays a really, really big role. There’s no moisture in the ground and it could dry out very quickly.”
More snow and rain could still come, and the outlook would change dramatically if the current dry trend reverses.
“Long-range weather forecasting is more of an art than a science, so it’s hard to make predictions on what fire season we’re going to have just yet,” Lipsher noted.
Still, some officials don’t want to take any chances, especially in Breckenridge, where hundreds of homes were evacuated during last year’s Peak 2 Fire.
At a recent town council meeting, Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula floated the idea of temporarily banning firewood sales at convenience stores and grocery stores as the area dries out and temperatures rise.
“I’m going to keep banging the fire drum for this summer,” he said. “I think the state’s in for a rough, rough summer and the more we can do and get done early the better.”
Two weeks ago, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill increasing the penalty for leaving campfires unattended to up to six months in jail, a maximum fine of $750 or both.
Local fire managers hope that measure will help educate the public about the dangers of smoldering campfires, which were a headache for firefighters last summer. With the weather out of anyone’s control, education and preventive measures are the best tools they have to stave off disaster.
The county government’s chipping program, for instance, offers to chip and haul away slash piles for free, encouraging residents to create defensible space around their homes. Since its inception in 2014, the program has served more than 5,430 households and cleared more than 16,000 slash piles, according to the county. It will return in June.
“The public is going to see a lot more early outreach than normal in terms of the fire department’s public presence,” Keating said. “We’re going to be out there much earlier than normal telling people to clean up their residences and prepare for fires.”
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The Jordanelle Reservoir is at about 67% of its capacity, not the lowest its been but a level that officials say is concerning.