Wildland fire in Avon forces I-70 closure as temperatures soar in Eagle County
There is no relief in the immediate forecast as drought conditions continue to worsen
A string of small fires on the north side of Interstate 70 from Avon to Edwards shut down the interstate’s westbound lanes for more than an hour Monday as crews worked to put out the flames.
What sparked the wildland fires between 12 and 1 p.m. remains under investigation by the Colorado State Patrol. Tracy LeClair with the Eagle River Fire Protection District said it’s possible, given the 5-mile stretch where fires emerged, that either a dragging chain or hot brakes on a semi-tractor-trailer sparked the dry grasses alongside the interstate.
Spot fires closer to Edwards threatened homes in the Singletree subdivision.
“It was breezy, but not super windy,” LeClair said. “Had the wind been a factor, that could have been a real concern.”
The fire brought out fire engines and emergency personnel from across the valley, with crews from Vail Fire, Greater Eagle Fire Protection District and Eagle River Fire Protection District working together to contain the fires. The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, Colorado State Patrol, Colorado Department of Transportation and the Avon Police Department also assisted with the effort. LeClair said dispatchers at the Vail Public Safety Communications Center fielded numerous calls when the fires broke out before crews got on scene.
Traffic backed up throughout Avon and the roundabouts as motorists detoured onto Highway 6. Both westbound lanes were running again just after 2:30 p.m.
Hot, dry and no relief in sight
There are currently no fire restrictions in Eagle County, but that could change quickly. Temperatures around western Colorado are smashing historic highs this week, and there isn’t much relief in sight both in the short-term forecast and in the long-term outlook for the summer, said Michael Charnick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
Temperatures in Avon and Edwards Monday afternoon hovered in the high 80s and temperatures are expected to reach into the 90s in the upper part of the valley starting Tuesday and lasting into Thursday.
“We’re near record level for pretty much all of our major towns across western Colorado,” Charnick said. “That’s going be continuing [Monday], tomorrow and Wednesday.”
LeClair said there are numerous factors that go into moving into fire restrictions. It’s a science of evaluating the energy release components of all live and dead fuels to potential fire intensity combined with weather conditions. There’s also a human element, like, say a busy July 4 weekend.
“I’m sure the fire chiefs have already reached out to the sheriff,“ LeClair said. ”We try to coordinate that with the Forest Service and the BLM. It’s easier if we can do it all in conjunction, like, say, deciding on a Tuesday and then going into restrictions on Friday morning.“
Toward the end of the week, some isolated clouds may make an appearance in the mountains, Charnick said, but those clouds aren’t forecast to bring any rain. There’s also a risk that some of those clouds could bring dry lightning, LeClair said.
Looking longer out, the trends continue to indicate that this summer will be very similar to last summer with a drier-than-normal forecast and slightly above-normal temperatures.
Severe, extreme and exceptional drought
Looking at the current drought conditions for Eagle County, only a small sliver representing the southeast corner of the county is in severe drought, which is marked by low snowpack, low surface water levels and decreased streamflows.
The largest swath of the county — which includes Vail all the way down to Eagle — is in extreme drought, with conditions ripe for large fires and mandatory water restrictions a possibility.
Gypsum and the rest of the western end of the county are in exceptional drought conditions, the highest classification on the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“Exceptional drought is still very much alive and well in the West,” Charnick said. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t really look like any sort of major system is on the horizon.”
Ali Longwell and Sean Naylor contributed reporting.
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