Hot spot

Local agencies prepare for a potentially busy fire season

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Moffat County's first wildfire of the year burned up one-tenth of an acre near Juniper Hot Springs.

Basically, one tree burned after being struck by lightning, said Lynn Barclay, Bureau of Land Management fire mitigation specialist.

That burning tree could be viewed as the unofficial start of fire season. There's really no forecast for how this fire season will go, local fire experts said. But everyone agrees that the current drought conditions, combined with the right ignition source, could result in greater than average fire occurrences this summer.

"I saw a forecast yesterday that said we're in drought conditions right now," said Craig Fire Chief Roy Mason. "Things are extremely dry. If we don't get a lot of rain, we have the potential for a big fire season."

Whether or not the region "greens up" will play a deciding role in what kind of fire season Moffat County experiences, Barclay said. Green countryside means moisture. In 2002, the area had many fire occurrences, because fuel loads were dry.

The below average snowpack and above average temperatures mean the area could be drying out soon. Barclay said the last she had heard, snowpack in Moffat County was at 70 percent of average and running off earlier than usual.

Lately, the shots of moisture have been a help in keeping the area wet, Barclay said. But the recent storms and evenings of dry lightning have provided the ignition source wildfires need.

"If you don't get lightning, then you don't get the potential for starts," Barclay said. "But with the conditions we have, if we get the source then the potential would be there."

While closely watching the weather, Craig Rural Fire Protection District, the Moffat County Sheriff Office and the BLM are all gearing up for whatever comes this way this fire season.

A Change in Strategy

Mason said the Rural Fire Protection District is busy making the mental transition from battling structural fires to fighting wildfires. For the men of the fire department, that means thinking through many strategy changes.

Instead of responding to a house fire, where the fire is often limited to one specific structure, the firefighters must respond to a wilderness site, where the topography of the land and the fuel load dictate how a fire must be fought. Economic water usage comes into play in the wildfires, because no hydrant is available that can be used to steadily soak out the fire. The weather plays more of a role, as wind directs a fire and a thundercloud can change everything in one second, Mason said.

Moreover, the Craig firefighters have to get accustomed to working with firefighters outside their own department. For Mason, that isn't a difficult adaptation, because he's used to meeting with officials from agencies he'll be fighting fire with, including the BLM, the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But some of his men count on the trusting relationship they share with the men with whom they work. They train together, pass time together, they know each other and trust one another for protection when they go into a fire. Mason said he trusts the BLM firefighters immensely, and described the Hot Shot crews as machines who fight fire all day, but the point is his men don't know these firefighters. Working with them is something of a leap of faith.

Nothing Has Changed

The Sheriff's Office is responsible for fighting fires on private land outside the Craig and Artesia Fire Protection District. Although Moffat County finished writing a county fire management plan last year, Sheriff Buddy Grinstead said he doesn't expect anything to change in the way his office fights fire.

"Since we've had the fire plan nothing has changed, because of a limited amount of budget for fire," Grinstead said.

The goal of the fire plan is to cooperate with private individuals and agencies to manage fuels loads and fire in the best interest of the county, said Jeff Comstock, Moffat County Natural Resources department director.

Among other things, that means building fuel breaks in cooperation with communities that will protect and benefit those communities. Comstock said it is pretty unlikely that any firebreak projects will get done this year.

The fire plan also means letting fire burn across private land, if weather conditions permit fire use and the homeowner desires it.

But the Sheriff's Office has a minimal budget to fight fires, $5,000 for salaries and about the same for operating costs, Grinstead said. Were the department to let a fire burn, the attendant deputies would have to stay on duty watching it. In a department already operating with a minimal staff, the overtime hours would add up quickly. Still, Grinstead said he'd like to let a couple fires burn as test cases of the fire plan.

Regardless of what strategy they are forced to take, deputies will soon be preparing for the fire season by completing fire behavior, weather, firefighter safety and engine operating training. The trucks, stationed near Wilderness Ranch, Greystone and Vermillion Creek, are being refilled after they were drained so the tanks wouldn't freeze and crack during the winter.

Grinstead said the first fire calls usually come in late May or early June.

Smoke Reports

The BLM has responded to one other call aside from the small Juniper Hot Springs fire. An engine responded to a smoke report near Peyonce Basin. It turned out to be nothing, Barclay said. But Craig Fire, the Sheriff's Office and BLM dispatch are continually receiving calls of wild fires that turn out to just be a rancher conducting a controlled burn in a ditch.

It's expensive and potentially dangerous to send a truck out, running red lights with the sirens blaring, to respond to a perfectly controlled burn on a ranch, Mason said. It's an easily avoidable hazard, because ranchers just need to call the fire district or BLM dispatch to tell them they'll be burning. Then the sheriff can dispatch an officer to make sure the burn is under control.

State law gives farmers and ranchers wide freedom for burning, Grinstead said. His officers can advise someone to burn in the morning or evening, when the ground is moister and wind is usually weaker, but they don't have the power to tell someone they can't burn.

By contrast, the BLM has to meet a long list of requirements before conducting a controlled burn. This past week, BLM personnel have been reducing fuel loads through controlled burns in Upper Browns Draw. But before beginning a prescription burn, requirements regarding wind speed, relative humidity, temperature and even smoke dispersal to protect air quality have to be met.

"We have such a small window of opportunity. If anything is outside of those parameters we wouldn't do the project," Barclay said.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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