Fire season expected to come early

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Routt County officials are preparing for an early and potentially severe fire season.

Although the Front Range likely will see the most severe fire season because of extreme dryness, Northwest Colorado also is in danger. The area is dry and is facing long-term drought conditions and beetle epidemics, which mean more dead trees and more fuel, said Routt County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale.

"We didn't have enough snow; in the snow we didn't have enough water. It's melting off 30 days early, plus (there's) a long-term drought component," Vale said. "It's certainly setting us up statewide for some concern."

Vale met with officials in Routt, Moffat, Grand, Rio Blanco and Jackson counties via a teleconference Tuesday morning. The purpose of the call was to talk about conditions in the area, when fire restrictions could be put in place and changes that had been made since the end of last summer.

Last year, outdoor fire restrictions were put in place July 21, and in 2002 they were put in place in mid-June. Restrictions could be agreed on earlier this year, Vale said.

Concerns for catastrophic fires come mostly in mid-June and July, when there are hot days, dry weather and the risk of lightning, he said.

But that does not mean residents should be careless with their spring burns, especially when wind is a factor, Vale said.

The 2002 fire season is fresh on the minds of officials and residents. During that summer, about 40,000 acres burned because of three big fires in the Routt National Forest, with an additional 20,000 acres or so that burned in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, said Kent Foster, central zone fire management officer for the Northwest Colorado Fire Management Unit.

Those numbers do not include fires on private lands.

Although it is difficult to predict what the season will be like, Foster said it seemed eerily similar to 2002.

"This feels a lot like 2002, and in some cases, it's earlier than 2002," he said. "We're trying to get ready for even more activity. ... It could be very, very busy."

The county is finishing up its preparations for the season, Vale said. This year's fire management plan is scheduled for approval today, and there is a refresher training course this weekend.

"Could we respond to a fire today? The answer is yes, the fire districts are prepared to respond," Vale said.

But the hope for this season is that wildfires, especially those sparked by lightning, stay away from residential areas.

"My concern is if we have the same kind of catastrophic fires that we had in 2002, if those were around the subdivided areas, imagine the concern," Vale said.

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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