Lighting a match under fire crews

The likelihood of a severe fire season seemed slim as a steady rain fell outside the Moffat County Public Safety Center on Wednesday. Yet, inside, a group of Moffat County Road and Bridge workers and sheriff's deputies gathered to train for any type of fires the summer season might bring.

"We're getting rain now, but it can quit," said Sgt. Tim Jantz with the Moffat County Sheriff's Office. "It's hard to tell."

He then joked, "We always tell people we'll predict in November how the season was going to be."

Area fire crews are beefing up their ranks for another fire season, a period that can run from June to October. But just about every agency keeps close watch on predictions from the National Weather Service.

According to meteorologist Jim Pringle, from the agency's office in Grand Junction, summer temperatures and moisture for Northwest Colorado are predicted at near-normal levels. However, a wetter-than-average spring -- depicted by the rain falling Wednesday -- potentially could make for a more flammable fire season. That is, an increase of moisture during the spring months can cause more plants to grow. That could make more ground cover or "fuel" for potential fires as those plants dry out as summer temperatures heat up, Pringle said.

"The fuel potential isn't significant until fuels start drying out," he said. "If you have a lot of fuel, it could be like the difference between a few matchsticks compared to a whole pile of matchsticks."

Pringle said forecasts call for higher-than-normal temperatures for May in Northwest Colorado. However, the extremity of the area's monsoon season of August through mid-September also can have an impact on fire season.

Lynn Barclay, a fire mitigation specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, said astronomical fires of 2000 in Colorado were a "wake up call in the fire community."

During the years, the agency and others involved with fire fighting have drastically changed their tactics. They've realized that some controlled fires are healthy for ecosystems, Barclay said.

"We always prepare as if it's going to be an active fire season," she said.

Last year, the area experienced a relatively inactive fire season. A couple of large fires burned in remote areas of the county, but crews mainly stayed busy chasing lightning strikes and one-tree fires.

Last year, the BLM crews covered 62 lightning fires, four prescribed burns and two wildland fires, Barclay said.

A total of 1,652 acres burned last year of the local BLM's 1.3 million acres.

Although last year was considered a slower fire year than some in years past, dispatch workers stayed busy as multiple calls came in for small fires.

"There was a lot of lightning fires," she said.

Barclay said this is the time of year that ranchers and property owners tend to burn fields and brush.

It also marks a good opportunity for homeowners to clear away a "defensible space" or about 50 feet worth of brush from their homes.

Jantz urged that people wanting to burn should alert the authorities of their plans.

A landowner can be fined for an out-of-control fire if fire agencies have to assist with extinguishing the blazes.

"We want to work in cooperation with the public," he said. "We tell ranchers and people if they are burning to tell us. It helps in a lot of ways if they can let us know the time of day and where it will be."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craig-dailypress.com

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