Burn-ready: Parched Western Slope is combustible
The fire that threatened the small town of South Fork in southwest Colorado ripped though territory so combustible that the land was drier only 3 percent of the time during roughly the past three decades.
For the Upper Colorado River area, the situation is marginally better. Only 10 percent of monitored days have been worse.
Having an energy release component in the 90th percentile or greater is “one of our signals” that much of western Colorado is ripe for a fiery outbreak, said Lathan Johnson, operations specialist for the Upper Colorado Interagency Fire Management Unit, which is operating from the Bureau of Land Management’s air center at Grand Junction Regional Airport.
The energy release is the result of measurements taken daily from monitoring stations that have been in place since the 1980s. It’s a measure of the available energy in British thermal units per square foot “within the flaming front at the head of a fire.”
In everyday terms, nothing in the vegetation in western Colorado for 90 percent of the last three decades or so has been as ready to burst into flames as it is today.
In the days leading up to the Pine Ridge fire near De Beque last year, the energy release component indices before the blaze that devoured nearly 14,000 acres “were setting all-time record highs last year,” Johnson said.
The energy-release component includes both dead and living fuels and doesn’t change drastically over short periods, such as after rain storms that dampen fuel temporarily, Johnson said.
“We’re dry and the farther south you go, the drier it gets,” Johnson said.
For the moment, the higher elevations are less combustible, but that’s not likely to last, Johnson said.
While lower elevation pinyon-juniper forests are in extreme fire danger — the highest-level designation — “We’re in very high in the middle elevations and high in the high country,” Johnson said.
“That’s why there are no fire restrictions” in the high country of the Grand Mesa and White River national forests, though visitors are advised to take caution with campfires, he said.
One thing working in western Colorado’s favor is the relative lack of fire activity across the country, meaning that more resources are available should they be needed.
“It’s real important for the public not to add to wildfires,” Johnson said. “We’ll have our hands full with lightning” and the blazes caused by strikes.
Meanwhile, persistent hot and dry conditions have kept western Colorado under differing levels of drought for years, and 2013 is no different.
The latest drought monitor released last week by federal agencies shows much of western Mesa County classified as suffering from “severe” drought conditions — joining more than three-quarters of the state under severe, extreme or exceptional drought conditions.
That compares with just 60 percent of the state under those conditions exactly one year ago, which was widely considered one of the driest years ever in Colorado.
Exacerbating the situation: little to no precipitation this month in the Grand Valley.
As of Saturday, the local office of the National Weather Service reported a mere 0.01 inch of precipitation for the entire month. Although June historically has meant little rainfall in the region, the average precipitation for the month is closer to 0.4 inch.