Grand County seasonal wildfire outlook mixed | SkyHiNews.com

Grand County seasonal wildfire outlook mixed

Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi Daily News

Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi Daily News

Unless rust red is your favorite color of tree, it’s an understatement Grand County’s forests leave much to be desired.

But take comfort: It could be worse.

At least Grand County isn’t located in the Southwest, where fire seasons are longer and wildfire is as common as a traffic jam on The 101.

Trees are dying, but at least the weather is on our side ” the West Slope side ” according to the Arapaho National Forest Sulphur Ranger District’s Fire Management Officer Paul Mintier.

It’s not picture perfection, but fire outlooks take into account eastern Grand County’s location, butted up against the Continental Divide.

Weather tends to be captured by the lay of the land on the West Slope, making for cooler-than-average temperatures, higher humidity and more precipitation.

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Those 2 p.m.-ish summer showers in the high country are part of the monsoons, their intensity affected by larger-scale weather patterns such as La Nina and El Nino.

As part of the jet stream, subtropic moisture gets pushed up into the central United States, and as fronts come through, they transform into thunderstorms.

Monsoons generally build up around late June and into early July, and with them, they bring a topographic lightning pattern that belts through the Windy Gap area to Rocky Mountain National Park. But normally, a wet monsoon season lowers the wildfire potential in the region, despite the lightning.

Lightning strikes do start fires, but such fires coupled with rainstorms are more easily controlled, according to fire experts.

“Even though we get lightning starts, up until this point, they’ve been small and we’ve been able to handle them,” Mintier said.

The 2008 Rocky Mountain Area Fire Season (pre-season) Outlook, provided by the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Lakewood that houses a team of scientists and meteorologist that feed forecast information to U.S. Forest Service districts, tentatively predicts “drier than average conditions for much of Colorado this spring into early summer. These drier-than-average conditions are forecast to continue into late June-early July, with expected moisture relief from the Southwest monsoon by early July. Drier than average conditions are expected to develop.”

Although the report is out too early to be taken as gospel and could change, “drier” never sounds like good news, and it isn’t.

But, even though monsoons may provide less moisture this summer, the good news is higher-than-average snowpack leftover from winter can prevent an earlier-than-average fire season for most mountain locations, the report reads.

Thus, the fire outlook for the early part of the season, during which two fires spread last year at the YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch of the Rockies and at the Ranch Creek Ranch poleyard in Granby, should be milder.

Although wildland firefighters are reluctant to make steadfast predictions, Mintier went out on a limb.

“I have a hunch the spring fire season is going to have less activity this year,” he said.

Then, as they do every year, mid-season monsoons should dampen extreme fire behavior, even though the early monsoons may be lighter than average.

That predicted decrease in moisture, however, could have a regional effect in the late-season period of August, September and October, when weather conditions dry up before temperatures fall.

Conditions during this time, coupled with similar-aged stands of lodgepole pine trees that are “red and dead” in the first two-to-three years following a beetle invasion, significantly increase the fire hazard. Most areas along the Fraser River corridor are still in the “read and dead” stage of tree mortality and create the potential for “crown” fires, or fires intense and fast-moving due to “foliar moisture content that may be as low as 7 percent compared to live needle moisture content of over 100 percent,” according to a USDA Forest Service briefing paper on the fire effects of the mountain pine beetle.

In general, this period is followed by a stretch of time when needles are falling to the forest floor, during which the forest enters a period of decreased fire danger ” albeit still existent. The Grand Lake area, for example, is moving into that stage and the Williams Fork area is well into it, during which “the branchwood in dead crowns would not support development and spread of a continuous crown fire,” the brief reads.

Then, with the third and final stage, which entails fallen dead trees and branches, fuel loading on the forest floor is extremely high and can result in serious rapid fires of great intensity and flame lengths.

“To be realistic, yes, our conditions are conducive to potentially easier ignitions,” Mintier said. “The fuel conditions are changing, and over time, we will see different fire behavior.”

But for now, the fire manager’s outlook for the 2008 season is, dare we say, pleasant to hear.

“I think in 2009, we’ll look back on the 2008 fire season as being calmer than normal and shorter than normal,” he said.

” Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail tbina@grandcountynews.com.

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