Wildfire forecast: Long-range modeling suggests dry, hot late summer in Grand County | SkyHiNews.com

Wildfire forecast: Long-range modeling suggests dry, hot late summer in Grand County

Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi Daily News
Grand County, Colorado

Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi Daily News

As April dawned, Paul Mintier, fire management officer for the Sulphur Ranger District, began his daily ritual of examining fire potential reports and National Weather Service information.

So far, he can only generate guesses as to how the season will shape up in Grand County, Colorado, come late summer, but early indicators point to below-normal precipitation and slightly above-normal temperatures in June, July and August.

The region’s latest snowfalls may help shorten the length of the fire season, he said, but the region’s fire hazards are far from normal.

Of the 401,000 acres in his forest district, 200,000 acres are affected by the mountain pine beetle epidemic. On those acres, lodgepole pine mortality is expected to reach 100 percent.

And because the mortality increases annually, so does the fire potential.

This fact alone has created a heightened awareness among firefighters with each passing year, Mintier said.

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The region of the White River, Routt, Arapaho, Roosevelt and Pike national forests stand capable of producing the 1.25 percentile of forest fires that consume tens of thousands of acres, one reason the region’s forests have been earmarked for federal dollars.

“I don’t want people to worry, but I want people to be prepared,” Mintier said. “The fire may come, but hopefully the outcome is not devastating to homes.”

Grand County governments and citizens, as well as federal agencies, Mintier said, are ahead of the curve with defensible spaces and interface fire breaks. The area is prepared as well as if not better than any other county. But that does not mean work shouldn’t continue, he said.

The U.S. Forest Service continues to contract work on its boundaries in hopes to one day influence fire behaviors, and homeowners should continue to maintain defensible spaces, Mintier said.

One factor foresters are now considering is the growth of forbs, grasses and shrubs on forest floors now that the epidemic has opened forests up to more sunlight. It’s guessed, Mintier said, that lightning-strikes may ignite more often with increased growth, and surface fires may spread more easily than if the floor were still only needle-barren.

Different areas of the county are in slightly different phases of forest death.

The Fraser Valley is “full-blown” in the first “Red and Dead” phase, during which needles become dead and dry but have not yet fallen ” the appropriate fuel for crown fires.

Meanwhile, the Grand Lake area, which got hit with the epidemic roughly two to three years ahead of the Valley, is now in a transition to the second phase during which needles fall off the trees. The Williams Fork area, which saw beetle destruction in the late 1990s, is well into this phase, Mintier said. The potential for large crown fires has greatly declined, and heavy surface fuels have not fully developed yet.

Then, the forest starts to transition into a third phase, a transition that builds up fuels on the forest floor over time. Tops and limbs of trees begin to break off, trees start to topple. Down the road, during what could last over the course of 15 years or more, Mintier said, forests become highly susceptible to extremely intense fires that are difficult to suppress. The best firefighters can do is change their direction.

Foresters in the Sulphur Ranger District had a slow fire season last year, with six to eight small wildland fires in eastern Grand County.

Three of them were escaped campfires, at least one was ignited by some other human means, and the others by lightning strikes in late summer.

Those types of fires, the ones suppressed upon initial attack, account for 98 percent of forest fires nationwide.

It’s the kind in the top 2 percent that U.S., state and local emergency responders in Grand County have been holding countless meetings preparing for, with more scheduled this spring. Timber harvesting, evacuation plans and responder protocol have all been developed in the name of firefighter and citizen safety.

The most important role of citizens, Mintier said, is to stay informed and keep up the work of creating defensible spaces around structures.

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

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