Although Pitkin County’s fire restrictions were downgraded from Stage 2 to Stage 1 a week ago, the potential for wildfires is still extremely high, the county’s emergency manager said Thursday.
“It’s not over yet,” Valerie MacDonald said, referring to dry natural fuels, above-average temperatures and other factors that have combined to create an extended wildfire season in the county and surrounding areas.
A case in point: Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District personnel responded to a small fire on Wednesday afternoon above Sewell Mesa after lightning struck a tree on Bureau of Land Management property. While there wasn’t much to the event, it shows how easily a fire can start amid current conditions.
Today, there is a “red flag warning” from 1-8 p.m. in Pitkin County. The designation from the National Weather Service means that dry fuels and high winds are expected to create a scenario in which it would be difficult to stop a fire from spreading, should one ignite.
MacDonald said the downgrade to Stage 1 restrictions — generally, the biggest difference between the two designations is that campers are now allowed to build a fire in a designated fire pit — doesn’t mean that visitors and local residents should suddenly let their guards down.
Many people, she said, mistakenly believe that because it snowed in the area on Sept. 10, there no longer is a danger of wildfire in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
“The snowstorm was not a wildfire-season-ending event,” MacDonald said.
Climate change is causing wildfire seasons to run longer, well into the autumn months, she said. Another concern this year is the strong chance, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, that La Nina conditions will persist through this winter. La Nina could further extend the current drought period.
NWS forecasters in Grand Junction are predicting low precipitation and above-average temperatures for the Roaring Fork Valley and western Colorado for the next 30 days, MacDonald noted.
“The fire season is relentless,” she said. “There are still numerous active fires burning in Colorado. While our fire risk is not as dire as it was a month ago because of cooler nights and a shorter daily burn period, it is too soon to let our guard down.”
The Grizzly Creek Fire just east of Glenwood Springs — which ignited in early August and led to a temporary shutdown of Interstate 70 — is still burning, she pointed out. Believed to be a human-caused fire, it grew to more than 32,000 acres, but is now more than 90% contained.
MacDonald reiterated her summertime message that residents need to have a plan in place in the event that wildfires force them to evacuate their homes. Tragically, people are dying as a result of wildfires in California and Oregon because “they aren’t evacuating quickly enough,” she said.
“That could happen here,” she said. “Sign up for emergency alerts, leave early, know your evacuation routes, have a 72-hour emergency ‘go bag’ ready.”
MacDonald said more local organizations — she mentioned the Aspen Board of Realtors and local nonprofit Lead with Love as examples — are warning their members about wildfire risks and the realities of climate change. She added that fall is a good time of year for residents to check with local fire departments about conducting free wildfire-risk assessments on their homes.