Officials anticipate intense fire season

Despite recent rainfall and near-average snowpack, officials say the 2003 wildfire season could be nearly as intense as the 2002 season.

"We're still not out of the drought situation, so the potential is still there," Bureau of Land Management Little Snake Office spokeswoman Lynn Barclay said.

Last year was widely considered possibly the worst fire season in history with 6,937,584 acres burned nationwide and a whopping $1.6 billion spent by federal agencies to fight them.

There already have been 69 fires in the Rocky Mountain region in 2003, burning 761 acres. Across the nation, 13,210 wildfires have taken 293,296 acres this year.

"We're not going to come out of it in one season," Barclay said. "All the moisture we're getting is going to help us, but it depends on the weather."

Trapper Mine reported 1.23 inches of precipitation for the month of April and 5.46 inches for the year, but that doesn't eliminate the danger of wildfires.

"Nobody feels we're out of danger because of the moisture we've received," Barclay said.

She said large diameter fuel such as older trees, take several years to recover moisture lost during a drought cycle.

Lack of moisture isn't the only problem Northwest Colorado faces when considering fire danger. Deadfall that is the result of bug and beetle kill is extremely flammable, and there is a large portion of that type of fuel lying on the ground, Barclay said.

"Our corner was still one area of concern at a recent Rocky Mountain Incident Management team meeting," she said.

The upside is that recent moisture puts the area in much better shape going into fire season than it was last year.

The first area fire of 2002 started in early April and officials are predicting a later start to the season this year, Barclay said.

Lightning is the primary cause of wildfires in Northwest Colorado, so the number of thunderstorms impacts the number of wildfires, but the timing of those storms is critical.

"Right now it's too early to predict what's going to happen," Moffat County Emergency Manager Clyde Anderson said, "but they're predicting more thunderstorms this year than usual. What I'm hearing is the general predication is we will have a lot of lightning."

Where and when that lightning strikes is at issue.

If the storms hit after a dry spell or windy conditions, the likelihood of ignition is high. If they hit as the landscape is "greening up" or are accompanied by heavy rainfall, there is less chance that a fire will start.

"What people still need to realize is we're not out of fire danger," Barclay said. "Our vegetation and forests have been weakened by drought and infestation. The potential is still there."

Anderson said the Wilderness Ranch area and Bakers Peak are at high risk for wildfire. Barclay added Douglas Mountain and Browns Park to the list.

"Unless we get a lot of precipitation, that area (Browns Park) seems to dry out faster than the others," she said.

According to Anderson, the Bakers Peak and Wilderness Ranch areas have dense vegetation, are difficult to access and have many structures, which make them a priority in wildland fire fighting.

"It's in our favor that most of our fires are out in sagebrush," he said. "When a fire has potential to burn a structure, we get concerned."

Last year, the Moffat County Sheriff's Department stationed fire trucks on Wilderness Ranch, at Vermilion Creek and in Maybell for a quick response to fires reported in those areas.

Anderson expects that to happen again.

Fire risk tends to lessen in the higher elevations.

One step in circumventing wildfires is prescribed burns for resource and fuel management. The BLM has been concentrating on the Douglas Mountain and Greystone area with prescribed burns.

There have been 88 prescribed burns in the Rocky Mountain region this year, covering 6,906 acres.

The BLM is working with the approximately 25 landowners in the Douglas Mountain and Greystone area on some wildfire prevention techniques in anticipation of another dry season and firefighters are beginning training and refresher courses.

"That is a high-start area and they do have a lot of lightning," Barclay said. "There are stands of ponderosa pine out there we want to protect."

The BLM conducts prescribed burns both for resource management and to protect private residences. The agency is working with the Moffat County Natural Resources Department, other state agencies and landowners on a fire plan that indicates what areas would be allowed to burn if a fire is started naturally and what areas will be protected.

"When we can allow a natural fire to (clean out dead trees and downed trees) for us instead of planning a prescribed burn, we do," Barclay said. "We've learned from taking fire totally out of the ecosystem and suppressing all fires that there needs to be a balance between suppression and allowing fire to do its job."

April is generally considered the start of fire season and residents are encouraged to take a look at their homes for potential hazards. Barclay recommends people mow their grass short, rake up dead vegetation and to not stack firewood under decks or next to homes. "Limbing trees" reduces "ladder fuels" that carry fire from the ground into trees, she said.

Area students are being educated on what residents can do to protect their homes from wildfires. A group of Recreational Alternative Doorways (RAD) students toured the county to look to landscaping and fuels to determine what made homes defensible against wildfires and what made them susceptible.

Through the FireWise program, landowners can get help assessing their property for danger and creating a defensible space. More information on the program is available from Barclay or by logging on to www.firewise.org.

In addition to education and prevention, the BLM has grant funds available to rural volunteer fire departments. Those funds can be used for training, equipment upgrades or protective gear. The Moffat County Sheriff's Department was the most recent benefactor of those funds in its purchase of a fire truck last year.

Firefighters are prepared for a high-risk season, Anderson said.

"We're used to doing wildfires," he said. "We're trained, we're equipped and we're ready for it. Whatever comes up, I'm quite confident we'll be able to handle it."

National and Geographic Predictive Service groups, climatologists, fuels specialists and fire behavior analysts have determined that nationally, the 2003 fire season will not be as severe as 2002. However, much of the interior West is expected to experience an above-normal fire season for the following reasons:

o Long-term drought persists over much of the interior West with mountain snowpack and winter precipitation remaining below average to date.

o Drought stressed and/or insect damaged vegetation is becoming more prevalent across the western states and will increase the potential for large, destructive wildfires at mid to high elevations.

The potential for fires in the Rocky Mountain region was rated by the group to be normal to above normal with critical levels being reached in June.

"Even with the expected spring precipitation, potential remains high for an above average 2003 fire season, especially in northern Wyoming, the Black Hills Region, the Northern Front Range, Southeast Wyoming and northwest Colorado," according to the National Interagency Coordination Center.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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