Fall arrives this weekend, but you might not guess it given fire and drought conditions that continue to persist even at summer's end.
On Thursday, about half of Mesa County was moved from the extreme to exceptional drought category, the worst category there is, by the U.S. Drought Monitor, with much of the eastern and southern parts of the county now in that category. Just a small sliver of the county previously was in the exceptional category, and the remainder of the county remains in extreme drought.
Delta County has moved into the exceptional category too, and many southwestern Colorado counties continue to be in that category as well. Much of the rest of western Colorado remains in extreme or severe drought categories.
Also Thursday, the Garfield County Sheriff's Office said fire restrictions are being reinstated in the county. The county move applies to unincorporated private and state lands, although local communities between Glenwood Springs and Rifle also are imposing the Stage 1 restrictions, which among other things limit fires to designated grates in developed campgrounds and backyard grills, and prohibit smoking except in buildings, vehicles, developed recreation sites and areas free of vegetation.
Bureau of Land Management spokesman David Boyd said the agency's Colorado River Valley Field Office in Silt will be deciding today whether to reimpose restrictions after coordinating with counties and the U.S. Forest Service.
The Garfield County Sheriff's Office cited recent hot and dry weather combined with the lingering impacts of last winter's low snowpack in creating high fire danger at elevations below 9,000 feet.
Improved conditions in August led to restrictions being lifted by numerous jurisdictions just before Labor Day, including by authorities in Mesa County and the BLM's Grand Junction Field Office, and by the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests.
GMUG spokesperson Kim Phillips said Thursday that conditions so far don't warrant reimposing limits.
Fire conditions have impacted the Uncompahgre forest in another way, though, as authorities on Tuesday again had to close part of Forest Road 402, the Divide Road, due to renewed activity in the area of the 32,645-acre Bull Draw Fire on the Montrose-Mesa county border. Authorities also expanded the closure area in the area of the fire.
The moves affect both hunting areas and hunting access via Divide Road on the Uncompahgre Plateau as some hunting seasons are underway.
Phillips said the new restrictions were imposed when a lot of hunters were in the area. She said the road closure was made necessary for safety reasons due to recent fire activity and to protect firefighters working so close to the road, which was experiencing increased traffic.
Phillips said sheriff's deputies from Mesa and Montrose counties helped in contacting hunters and getting them to move their camps due to the new closures.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife previously decided to let hunters seek refunds of fees or license-drawing preference points up to a day before the start of the seasons for archery, muzzleloading and rifle bear licenses in game management unit 61, which has been affected by the Bull Draw Fire. Normally refunds are only provided up to 30 days before a season's start, but the agency made the exception for those licenses because their seasons started less than 30 days after the fire's July 29 start.
In better news for forest visitors and particularly hunters, the Forest Service said Thursday it is lifting the closure area associated with the Cache Creek Fire southwest of Rifle, meaning the reopening of popular hunting areas and trails ahead of the start of the height of hunting season.
The 2,700-acre fire is 55 percent contained and continues to smolder in areas. Containment won't increase due to the steep, inaccessible terrain on the fire's south side, and the Forest Service is warning hunters and other forest visitors to avoid smoldering areas and watch out for hazards such as fire-weakened trees that may fall.
Nearly 130 firefighters continue to work on the Bull Draw Fire, which is 60 percent contained.
Recent fire activity has included about two dozen small spot fires that crews worked to contain. A trace amount of rain fell on the fire Wednesday, but on Thursday authorities were expecting clearer skies with potentially gusty winds.
Warmer-than-normal temperatures this summer have contributed to fire and drought conditions. The National Weather Service in Grand Junction said on Twitter Tuesday that the city's high temperature that day was 93 degrees, the 90th day this year where the high temperature reached 90 degrees or more, tying a record set in 1977.
High temperatures dipped into the 80s later in the week.
"I'm hoping the 90-degree days are done," assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger of the Colorado Climate Center said of the hot temperatures Coloradans have been experiencing this summer, while noting that forecasts suggest the cooldown may not last.
As for monsoon rains this summer, they didn't push as far north as Bolinger had hoped, providing decent moisture in Arizona and New Mexico, but not Colorado, she said.
"We would get scattered precipitation events and think, 'OK, it's starting,' but it was never consistent enough or widespread enough to really make the dent that we needed.
"Right now we're just kind of hoping that we'll maybe see a (weather) shift as we get further into fall, so we're really kind of holding our breath and waiting to see what the start of the snow season looks like," Bolinger said.
Unfortunately, she said, it looks like the next few months more likely than not will be warmer than average, which means that if precipitation comes it's less likely to come as snow to get the snowpack season off to a good start.
The last two snowpack seasons also started off with a poor start in terms of snow accumulation. Bolinger said that two years ago good snowfall in December and January helped a lot of western Colorado make up for the slow start.
"Last year that wasn't the case," she said.
For now, she said, it's a matter of people holding on tight in the middle of a drought that in terms of categories can't get worse for areas in that exceptional range.
"Keep our fingers crossed for a good October blizzard," Bolinger said.