Despite heavy snowpack this winter and a wet spring, conditions in Southwest Colorado can change on a dime: The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for much of La Plata and Montezuma counties from noon to 9 p.m. Thursday.
“The combination of dry vegetation in the lower elevations, gusty winds and low relative humidity will create critical fire weather conditions that make open burning dangerous,” the NWS said in a statement.
According to a weather station at Durango-La Plata County Airport, more than 9 inches of precipitation has been recorded since Jan. 1 – nearly 4 inches above the historic average.
Still, conditions can change and dry out quickly in the arid Southwest, and with it comes the risk of fire danger.
“Just because it snowed this winter, doesn’t mean there won’t be a fire season,” said John Gilbert, captain of the wildland division for the Los Pinos Fire Protection District. “People still need to stay vigilant.”
Typically, in Southwest Colorado, fire season starts in June, just after the green up in spring and the subsequent precipitation brought by monsoons in July and August.
May brought spring showers this year: The weather station at the airport recorded about 1.5 inches of precipitation, about an inch more than historic averages. June, however, is off to a dry start, with just .07 inches of precipitation, about .25 inches under the norm with a third of the month to go.
Dry conditions and hot temperatures this week have dried out fuels like grasses and brush on the landscape. Add the 25 mph wind gusts forecast for Thursday, and the fire danger has returned in full force.
“It does change pretty quickly here,” said Karola Hanks, fire marshal with the Durango Fire Protection District. “A lot of us live here because of the number of days with beautiful sunshine, but those are the conditions that dry those fuels out, which then become very susceptible to fire.”
Hanks said DFPD hired an additional wildland crew for the year, which is available if fire season picks up. She also urged caution for the upcoming Fourth of July holiday, a time when some residents hold their own firework shows.
“We’re hoping people will be smart this year and careful ... and don’t overestimate what the moisture from this winter gave us,” Hanks said.
Gilbert said the moisture from the past few months, while it doesn’t stop wildfires, does help crews put them out. Still, he said the possibility of fires breaking out never truly goes away.
“All it takes is one mistake, then we’re off to the races,” he said.
Richard Bustamante, fire staff officer for the San Juan National Forest, used the 2017 Lightner Creek Fire as an example of a fire that started in a wet year that held serious potential for becoming catastrophic.
“You get a fire in the wrong spot, on the wrong day, and you can still get a large wildfire or something that threatens homes,” he said.
Last year at this time, the Forest Service had reported about 140 wildland fire starts. So far this year, that number is down to about 35 fires. But, Bustamante said many of the dead fuels on the forest floor haven’t quite recovered from last year’s drought, and fire danger remains a concern.
“Even though the fire danger isn’t necessarily high now, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful with fire,” he said.