Wind is biggest fire danger now
July 2, 2010
Fire. Every summer in Grand County that word grows in the minds of residents.
For years area residents have been told that firefighter preparation is ongoing and that homeowner participation is necessary to build protections against what one-day could be an out-of-control fire.
Countless dollars have been spent on clearing trees, planting new ones and creating fuel breaks, with much work left to be done.
On the bright side, certain communities are in a better position overall than if there were still green trees, according to Grand Lake Fire Chief Mike Long.
And the epidemic has been the catalyst for wildland firefighter training in the region like never before, such as multiple training opportunities with the elite National Incident Management Team.
This week, Paul Mintier, fire management officer with the Sulphur Ranger District based in Granby, is changing “Smokey the Bear” signs to advertise “moderate” fire conditions, meaning if there were a fire, it would likely spread slowly due to green grasses having grown from the spring’s precipitation, according to Mintier.
From studying fuel moisture in trees, foresters have determined that trees are “wetter than average” for this time of year, so firefighters’ initial attack on a wildland fire would have a high probability of success, according to Mintier.
According to data from the Rocky Mountain Area Predictive Services of Denver, the outlook for the summer shows an average monsoon season typical of the last few years (meaning grab that umbrella at 3 p.m. every day starting in late July) with warmer than normal temperatures.
How will this affect fire conditions in the Sulphur Ranger District? Mintier said his concern for a large fire has not increased in recent years.
About 98 percent of wildland fires nationwide are caught at initial attack. Colorado experiences on average about 2,800 every five years.
In other words, the Hayman-type fires of the region account for just 2 percent of the nation’s fires.
Initial-attack success also rings true in Grand County’s public forests.
“We and our cooperators do a whole lot of work that nobody knows about,” Mintier said. “About 98 percent of the time, we’re stopping a fire at initial attack and no one hears about it.”
Already this season, foresters have put out one 50-by-50 foot wildland fire in the Winter Park area that started from an abandoned campfire on the east side of Highway 40 above the Denver Water Board road.
There have also been several fires this season put out by district fire departments.
Grand Lake firefighters have responded to 10 to 12 power line tree fires this year, according to Long. One was on County Road 424 when a single tree fell on a power line.
Additionally, there has been more than one structure fire this year.
These fires brought under control are not to be taken trivially.
Mintier said with the right conditions – a hot windy day in a series of hot dry days, with wind heading in the direction of a steep slope, with the right fuel conditions – a fire could spread very quickly.
Given this year’s windy conditions, Long believes trees falling into power lines to be the most imminent fire hazard.
“The green trees are the ones falling over, not the brown ones,” Long said, “The needles create a sail, they’re top-heavy because they still have moisture, they don’t have the protection of the other trees the way nature designed lodgepole to grow, and the moisture in the trees conducts electricity down into the ground, which makes it more hazardous for responders. We’re seeing more trees in power lines than we’ve ever seen before.”
In past years, Long had believed the probability of a lightning wildfire was the greatest.
“Lighting usually comes with rain at this elevation,” he said. “In the last 10 years that I’ve been around up here, a lightning-start fire hasn’t gone more than a tenth of an acre.”
Also high on Long’s list of probable causes for wildfire is a structure fire without proper mitigation around the home.
Since the county’s permitting program, slash burn piles have become less of a hazard with homeowners getting more educated about the dangers of leaving a slash pile unattended, he said. That’s not to say there are not still illegal slash burns outside of the burn season.
Mintier agrees with Long about the dangers of trees on power lines and structure fires during the fire season.
Mountain Parks Electric has aggressively been clearing its hundreds of miles of power line rights of way, but the work is ongoing.
In the forests, conditions are evolving from the beetle kill, Mintier said, and the more time that passes for about 20-25 years after trees die, the more fuel hazards build in the forest.
With that, lightning strikes could gradually become more successful in starting fires than they have in the past, he said.
Foresters in the Sulphur Ranger District usually attend to six to eight lightning fires per year, but that number could go up as more trees fall over, Mintier said.
Although Mintier prefers not to feed fear in the minds of the public, “the public really needs to be aware and cautious,” he said. “Humans really are the ones that need to be careful. Be cautious with any source of ignition.”
“So far this year, there have been 154 human caused fires in Colorado and 389 in the Rocky Mountain Area burning almost 20,000 acres,” said Steve Segin, Public Information Officer at the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. The Rocky Mountain Area includes Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota.
On that note: Fireworks are illegal in the national forests, campfires should only be lit inside constructed fire rings and should be put completely out at the end of their use, and homeowners should be diligent about creating defensible space around their homes.
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.