Cold might relieve fire risk

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A cold front moving into the area could douse the high-risk fire conditions that have lingered for days in Routt County.

Routt County has been under a red flag warning -- meaning the threat of fires is extremely high -- since Wednesday. National Weather Service Meteorologist Jim Daniels said high winds and dry fuels led to the warning. A cold front is expected to bring cooler temperatures, less wind and a chance for precipitation today. That should eliminate the need for a red flag warning, Daniels said.

He forecast a high temperature between 40 and 50 degrees today, dropping into the 30s by the time children hit downtown Steamboat for trick-or-treating.

There was a 20 percent to 30 percent chance of snow overnight Thursday, with the odds a little higher in the mountain areas. Snow flurries began about 7 Thursday night.

"You might have some whiteness up in the mountains. I don't think you will really see too much," Daniels said.

Diann Ritschard, public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service, is hoping the weather shift will bring moisture.

In early September, federal and local agencies lifted fire restrictions that had been in place since July 21. those restrictions prevented campfires. Ritschard said when campfires are allowed, people should take extreme care in the woods and not leave campfires unattended.

Before leaving a fire, Ritschard recommends dousing it with water and making sure the fire is out by touching the ashes with the back of the hand to see if they are cold.

"The tiniest ember can become a huge wildland fire," she said. "The people who leave unattended campfires and start wildland fires could be responsible for the costs of fighting the fire and also restoring the land, which could be hundreds of thousands of dollars."

If residents needed a reminder of the fire danger, they needed only to check the sky Thursday. A thick haze of smoke settled over the Yampa Valley.

Daniels said southwesterly winds Tuesday and Wednesday pulled smoke into the area from fires in Utah and California. The smoke was not from the Overland fire near Boulder and the Cherokee Ranch fire in Douglas County, which are downwind from Steamboat, Daniels said.

Ritschard advised against vehicles parking in grass areas, where carburetors could spark fires, and throwing out cigarette butts.

The main threat for wildland fires is the high winds, Daniels said. The National Weather Service gauged wind speeds between 15 and 20 mph Thursday with wind gusts at 35 to 45 mph throughout the county.

Red flag alerts are uncommon but not unheard of in October, Daniels said. The red flag alert, which is the highest fire risk indicator, is more often issued in June and July.

Daniels said October, a month that typically brings moisture, has seen very little precipitation.

Ritschard said when fire restrictions were pulled in September, conditions were normal heading into fall with average moisture and lower temperatures. Red flag alerts were not expected to return.

Ritschard said if called upon, local wildland firefighters would respond to help fight fires in other parts of the state and country, and local equipment might be used. As a national resource, Ritschard said, firefighters go wherever needed.

"During the fires in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness (in the summer of 2002), there were a lot of people from California who came to help us," she said, "and we would certainly go help them."

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229 or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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