Steamboat Springs Chances for a large fire in the Routt National Forest have rarely been as high as they are now, U.S. Forest Service officials said.
The Forest Service has been measuring moisture content and fuel in the forest for the past 13 years. According to data collected on live and dead fuels and moisture content at Dry Lake Campground on Buffalo Pass, the area is in the 99th percentile for fire danger.
That means there has been a higher fire danger on only 1 percent of the days in the past 13 years, said Kent Foster, fire management officer for the Forest Service.
The dead wood at Dry Lake has 7-percent moisture content, the lowest the Forest Service has recorded. That's about half the amount of moisture normally in the wood during this time of year, making it extremely flammable, Foster said.
He said 7-percent moisture content is drier than cut wood stored at lumberyards.
These readings come a full month before the forest reaches what is normally the driest time of the year.
Given such flammable conditions, local fire officials said a wildfire is inevitable.
"That's exactly where we are at," Routt County Emergency Manger Chuck Vale said. "All we need is something to start it and we could have a catastrophic fire."
The weather is not helping. On Thursday, thunderstorms developed over parts of Routt County, producing lightning but little rain. The same is forecast for today.
"If there is any rain, it's not going to do much," National Weather Service technician Dan Cuevas said.
Lightning without rain is particularly dangerous, since lightning is a common source of wildfires. In fact, Forest Service statistics show that 20 percent of lighting strikes in the forest are likely to ignite fires in the forest given current conditions, Foster said.
Vale said the lightning forecast Thursday had him anticipating a major fire.
"When I saw that, I was like, 'oh my God,'" he said.
Where a fire starts is the most important factor to consider, Vale said. If it happens deep in the national forest, then it's not as much of a worry.
If a fire starts near an urban part of the county, then it's obviously a problem and would call for a huge response team.
The Forest Service is taking some new steps to prepare for a response team's arrival. Officials want to create a land-use agreement with a private landowner or other land entity away from urban areas to allow the agency to build a camp for the response team, Foster said.
"Some of these fires will have thousands of people show up," Foster said.
If a large fire does break out in Routt County, the people who respond will need a place to sleep and eat.
"We can locate a camp right where the fire is happening, but if we have a few options, it's one less thing to worry about," Foster said.
The land-use agreement would allow the Forest Service to compensate the landowner for the service. Foster said he hopes to find at least two places that can be used if a fire ignites, one in the Stagecoach area and one in North Routt County. The spot needs to be near main roads and preferably have potable water. "What we want to do is to be prepared if we have a big fire," Foster said.
Landowners in Routt County who may have property available are urged to call 879-1870.
To reach Doug Crowl, call 871-4204
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