While drought conditions persist in Pitkin County, the snowy spring is helping to shrink the summer window when the wildfire danger soars, a U.S. Forest Service fire expert said Tuesday.
Jim Genung, prescribed fires and fuel specialist with the White River National Forest, county emergency manager Tom Grady and other officials from the valley’s fire districts briefed the county commissioners about existing conditions and preparedness efforts.
Recent checks on snowpack-monitoring stations show the Roaring Fork Valley’s precipitation is about 75 to 100 percent of the yearly average, Genung said. But some stations in the Fryingpan River Valley are only at 50 percent of the normal snowpack.
The valley snowpack’s moisture content “has picked up pretty good,” Genung said, adding, however, that western Pitkin County is still well below normal levels.
The county as a whole remains in a severe to extreme drought, like much of the western United States, according to charts he presented to the commissioners.
The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center estimates in a 90-day outlook that the county has a 33 percent chance of experiencing below-average precipitation. The odds are about the same for above-average temperatures in June.
Still, Genung said the longer the valley gets snow and cold temperatures, the further it pushes the “green-up,” or the beginning of a new cycle of plant growth that can be fuel for fires.
“I think we’re going to get a quick green-up,” he said. “We will have a shorter fire window for sure” compared to last year, when the snowpack had mostly melted by the end of March.
Local, state and federal fire authorities held a two-day meeting last month in Glenwood Springs to go over weather forecasts, ordering plans for firefighting resources, costs and other issues, Grady said.
“We’re in the second year of drought, which is exacerbating our fuels” for wildfires, he said.
The recent snowfall may not matter in a few weeks, and “we could have a very outrageous fire season,” Grady said.
Starting May 2, there will be a series of meetings for valley residents on steps they can take to protect their homes from fire amid the drought.
Jerry Peetz, deputy chief of the Basalt fire department, has spearheaded an effort to get the valley’s fire districts to adopt a program called “Ready, Set, Go.”
The multi-agency program involves public meetings to instruct residents on what to expect in a wildfire, mitigation and defensible-space recommendations, and evacuation planning, Peetz said.
“We’ve consolidated different messages on fire preparedness,” he said.
Grady said people should maintain awareness of how dangerous fires can be, even from a distance. He brought up the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs that destroyed scores of homes.
“You could be miles away and still have a fire” because of flying embers, Grady said.
Home-safety tips are available at pitkinemergency.org/wildfire-mitigation/.
Commissioner George Newman said the recent snowfall shouldn’t give residents a false sense of security.
“People should still be aware that with a week or two of warm weather and high winds ... that fire is a definite hazard,” he said.
Wildfire-preparedness meetings are set for:
• May 2 at the Basalt and Rural Fire Department, 1089 JW Drive, El Jebel, for Eagle County residents, including Blue Lake, Missouri Heights and surrounding areas; and May 9, same location, for Pitkin County residents, including downtown Basalt and surrounding areas.
• June 6 at the Aspen Fire Protection District, 420 E. Hopkins Ave., Aspen, for residents of the city and surrounding areas.
• June 19 at the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire District, 5275 Owl Creek Road, Snowmass Village, for village residents and surrounding areas.
• June 25 at the Carbondale and Rural Fire District, 300 Meadowood Drive, Carbondale, for Carbondale, Redstone and Marble residents and surrounding areas.
For more information, contact Blair Weyer, wildfire public information officer, at 315-2478.