Engines ready to roll: Moffat County officials preparing for hot, dry fire season ahead
For the Craig Press
Reflecting on a 2020 that saw much of the state burn, Moffat County Sheriff KC Hume thinks about what could have been.
The firefighting team he and others assembled extinguished a small smoker just south of Craig less than five minutes before it had hit a crest with winds that would have fed it like a hungry-hungry hippo. Most showers last longer than five minutes. The blaze would have chewed through multiple homes and, perhaps, could have turned into one of the larger fires of the year in the state’s worst fire season in history.
And yet, it didn’t happen.
In fact, Moffat County didn’t have any significant fires at all, at least not compared to many other parts of the state (the three worst fires in state history all happened in 2020) despite crunchy-dry conditions that turned the rest of the state into tinder.
The county probably gets as many as 4,000 lightning strikes a day during prime storm season, accompanied by high afternoon winds — and little rain to help. Last season, there were more “red flag” days, or bone-dry days than any other season in recent memory.
“We had a lot of fires,” Hume said, “but we got to them quickly and kept them small.”
Sure, Hume admits that luck played a part, but not as much as you might think. He believes the relationships he’s built with other wildland firefighting teams in the area, such as those from other local fire districts, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, makes a huge difference.
“We have engines prepped and ready to roll as we speak,” Hume said.
That’s important in what could be another dry year. Hume said all the signs are there: They received less precipitation than in previous years, and already, by early April, they’d had three red flag days.
“That’s pretty early, quite frankly,” Hume said.
Hume’s office still has his own wildland firefighting team, a rare setup but one that’s probably necessarily in Moffat because of its size, its capacity for lightning (the county gets more strikes than any other part of the state) and it’s windy, difficult terrain.
Hume and Todd Wheeler, the county coordinator for emergency management, host daily briefings during fire season with representatives from those agencies listed above about what the day could bring and who would be available to stop the worst of it. They figure it out by looking at forecasts, lightning maps and current fire restrictions as well as what kind of staff each agency has on call. Most of the fires, up to 70 percent, are sparked by lightning, Wheeler said.
“We know what each other has that day, and we make a game plan together,” Wheeler said.
The result of all that coordination, Wheeler said, saves up to an hour when a fire starts. Remember when we said they beat that other fire by less than five minutes?
“It’s probably the biggest key,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said it’s too soon to know how the fire season will go this summer despite the early warnings that point to another dry year.
“I’ve seen in year’s past where it’s been horrifically dry,” Wheeler said, “and then we get a monsoon and it’s a low fire season for most of the summer.”
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The Preserving the Last Frontier history group will meet Saturday, July 31, at 1:30 p.m. at the Senior Social Center, 775 Yampa Ave. in Craig.