Drought, wildfires make for trying year

The eerie glow of the Rosevale fire illuminates firefighters on Monday night.

Western Coloradans who looked skyward this year were more apt to see wildfire smoke than snowflakes or raindrops.

The year will go down as a historic one for the state thanks to a prolonged drought that left farmers and ranchers high and dry, saw wildland firefighters swarm to the region's rescue and ratcheted up the pressure on water managers to plan for possible continued shortfalls in the Colorado River Basin.

The drastic drought and active fire season is the Sentinel's No. 3 story of 2018.

The problems began with a winter snowpack season in which most river basins in Colorado had peak accumulation levels of less than 60 percent of normal. By spring, meager runoff was forcing some ranchers to cull herds and was driving up hay prices because of poor range and hay-growing conditions.

As early as April, signs of the fire season to come already were surfacing in the Grand Junction area. A brush fire caused by someone working on a lawn mower burned a mobile home along with other buildings and some vehicles in the Rosevale neighborhood, and another fire erupted at Horsethief Canyon State Wildlife Area when a transient tried to burn some toilet paper — an action for which the contrite man later was sentenced to public service.

The incidents led the Daily Sentinel to editorialize, "If fires can quickly rage out of control in April, what is July going to bring?"

The answer came on the Fourth of July, when the Lake Christine Fire near Basalt grew rapidly, eventually burning three homes overnight and threatening hundreds of homes.

Over the course of the summer and fall fires ended up burning hundreds of thousands of acres in Colorado as the anticipated seasonal monsoon rains failed to materialize.

Among the blazes were the Red Canyon Fire near Douglas Pass and the Bull Draw Fire north of Nucla, the latter of which wasn't fully contained until mid-October, thanks to some soaking rains.

Fall brought not just cooler weather but welcome early- season snowfall. But the longer-term impacts of the drought have continued. By late October, Ridgway Reservoir was at its lowest level since filling, Blue Mesa Reservoir was at just 30 percent of capacity, and various entities controlling water in Ruedi Reservoir graciously stepped up to release some to help irrigators and endangered fish downstream in the Grand Valley.

Because of drier-than-average conditions over the past two decades, low water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are of concern to states throughout the Colorado River Basin.

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