Warm Pacific water, snowpack may delay fire season
May 30, 2014
The Rocky Mountain Area's fire season outlook continues to be normal, though a number of factors may influence how the season proceeds.
Abnormal activity in the Pacific coupled with heavy snowpack seems to be pointing toward a later start to the season, fire officials said.
The area usually experiences a drying trend around the beginning of June, but this year that trend seems to be arriving much later, said Lynn Barclay of the Northwest Colorado Fire Management Unit of the Bureau of Land Management.
The drying of fuels that can feed fires during the summer usually begins after the muddy season, but Barcly said this year it may not begin for another month or so.
She added that it's anybody's guess when that may actually begin.
The fire season usually lasts through July and August and sometimes goes into September, Barclay said. Grand County's fire season usually starts later than other counties in Northwest Colorado due to its elevation and snowpack.
This year, the area is also being influenced by a swathe of warm equatorial water in the eastern Pacific Ocean called El Niño.
The oceanic phenomenon tends to lead to more dispersed moisture across Colorado during the summer, feeding wetter thunderstorms west of the Divide, said Mike Baker, forecaster with the National Weather Service in Boulder.
"Grand County may see a relatively significant jump in thunderstorm activity during the monsoon season," Baker said.
Moderate El Niño systems also tend to cause summer daytime temperatures to run slightly below average.
The snowpack in the mountains above Grand County also acts as sort of a buffer on fire season, slowly releasing moisture as temperatures rise.
"We've got good snowpack still in the area," Baker said. "If we do have a fire season, it may be short-lived in that part of the state. "
However, Barclay cautioned that weather conditions are always subject to abrupt changes, and some areas may become drier and more fire prone than others during the fire season.
"Here in Northwest Colorado, we can have rain and get some moisture, but then if that's followed up with hot dry windy conditions, the wind will just pull the moisture right out of the plants," Barclay said.
So far this year, Barclay said her agency has responded to around 10 fires, which is about the same or slightly less than last year at this time.
She recommended that when starting a fire, people should check to make sure the fuels around them are not dry.
Uncertainty over El Niño
Though El Niño could play a role in this year's fire season, its influence depends on its strength, and Baker said this particular one is already proving difficult to judge.
"This is an unusually early start," Baker said. "These types of abnormally warm temperatures don't usually start so early."
It's usually not until the end of June or beginning of July that El Niño conditions begin to manifest in the Pacific
Baker said nearly 100 percent of climate models are pointing toward a proper El Niño this year, which means warm waters must be sustained for at least five months.
He said he expects a weak El Niño until the end of summer and a moderate El Niño from late summer into fall.
Unfortunately for skiers, a moderate El Niño this winter could lead to less snow in Northwest Colorado.
"This is just based on historical accounts, but Grand County may see average to below average precipitation this winter," Baker said.
If that proves to be the case, residents just might have to wait for El Niño's counterpart, La Niña, which tends to bring memorable amounts of powder to the area.
Hank Shell can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610.