Wildfire threat similar to 2002

Officials warn that county is not safe from fire

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— Routt County may look green, but it's a dry green.

Fire chiefs and emergency managers across the county want to be sure the wet winter and green spring don't fool residents into thinking that the county is safe from summer wildfires.

"It's green right now, and I think people forget about the drought and the severe conditions we had last year," Steamboat Springs Assistant Fire Chief Bob Struble said. "But it's still there. People need to be aware of how dry it is and be safe."

Struble said he hoped a fire that scorched a 10-by-20-foot area on Howelsen Hill after the city's Fourth of July fireworks show Friday serves as a reminder to people that a fire can take place anytime, anywhere. The blaze, which fire officials said was not caused by the city's show but more likely was caused by fireworks set off by private residents, was just another warning sign, he said.

"That just shows how dry it is around here," Struble said.

Across the county, fire danger ranges from very high to extreme, according to the National Fire Danger Rating System, said Cliff Hutton, assistant fire manager officer for the Northwest Colorado Fire Management Program.

Hutton spoke at a meeting of the Routt County Wildland Fire Multi-Agency coordinating advisory board Wednesday.

"As soon as we get some lightning, we're gonna be hopping," Hutton said.

"We're getting right back to where we were last summer ... so it's just a matter of time."

Relative humidity levels are low, often falling below 10 percent, Hutton said. Live fuels, such as grass, sagebrush and trees, also have low moisture content and in some areas are hitting 60 percent to 80 percent moisture content. Extreme fire behavior can take place when live-fuels measurements fall below 120 percent moisture content, he said.

The total heat released by smaller fires burning in Northwest Colorado over the past few days has grown significantly, Hutton said, meaning "they're getting to extreme-level fire behavior."

Last summer, extreme drought created perfect conditions for fires to erupt across the state. The Hinman fire near Clark was one of several fires that burned tens of thousands of acres in the Steamboat Springs area.

Routt County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale reminded people attending Wednesday's meeting that Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the Hinman fire. He said that the area's fire season is just beginning, and the possibility for wildfire likely will remain high through September.

"Every time lightning strikes we (seem) to have another fire start in this county," Vale said. "From a fire perspective, yes, it's a beautiful summer."

About half a dozen fires are burning around the state, with one at more than 1,200 acres near Meeker. On Monday, lightning sparked a fire in a meadow of grass and sagebrush on the south side of Stagecoach State Park, but firefighters from the Oak Creek Fire Protection District quickly put out the blaze.

Punky Moore, who works with visitor information for the U.S. Forest Service, said there are no fire restrictions on the Routt National Forest but that residents should be careful with campfires and should call their public land agencies throughout the summer to find out if any restrictions are put in place.

"I think people always need to be aware of conditions, especially with this dry weather that we're having and no real relief in sight that I've seen from that," Moore said.

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