The potential for an unusually intense wildfire season exists in the rolling sagebrush and juniper country west of here. And any sign of relief from seasonal monsoon rains this weekend probably will be just a tease.
At present, the only fire burning in the region is west of Meeker. However, federal Fire Management Officer Mike Rieser at the Interagency Dispatch Center in Craig said Wednesday that any new fires have the potential to be intense. He said measurements suggest the down and dead fuels on Northwest Colorado rangeland below 7,500 feet would release an unusually high amount of heat if ignited.
"We've reached the extreme end," Rieser said. "Moffat Coun-ty is getting very dry."
However, similar conditions do not exist yet in forested mountain areas of the Routt National Forest, Rieser said. Routt County Undersheriff Dan Taylor confirmed that Sheriff John Warner has conferred with other officials and determined there is no need to impose fire restrictions at this time. Current conditions meet some of the criteria for fire restrictions, but not all of them, Taylor said.
"We do have a concern, because it's very dry out there," Taylor said. "Certainly, we'll re-evaluate it in the near future."
Ironically, Rieser said, it was the abundant cold moisture of June that set the table for the extreme fuel conditions being observed west of Steamboat this month. After two years of drought, grasses and other plants were poised for rapid growth early this summer. The rain and snow that drenched the region last month delayed the arrival of fire season, but it also added to the base of fuels, Rieser said.
Now, with summer monsoons late to arrive, all of that new vegetation is drying under a hot sun and is increasing the fire danger.
"We had a tremendous amount of growth," Rieser said. "In 20 years, this is by far the most production we've seen. A good rainy period after a period of drought often results in tremendous growth."
The delayed start of fire season, combined with the absence of monsoon rains arriving from the south, could extend fire season well into August, Rieser added.
Northwest Colorado could see some dry thunderstorms this weekend that are a result of a monsoon flow from Arizona, but weather reports indicate a high-pressure system approaching from the Pacific Northwest will push the clouds out of the region, Rieser predicted.
Rieser and his colleagues are responsible for a region that includes Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Jackson and Grand counties.
The Pack Trail blaze is burning 10 miles west of Meeker. The fire is responsible for much of the haze in Steamboat's skies, Rieser said. Fires in Utah and Nevada probably are contributing to the smoke in the air here, as well.
The Pack Trail fire has been allowed to burn under a set of criteria that allow managers to manage wildfire as a tool to improve the range and reduce fuels. However, as of Wednesday, Rieser said, new fires below 7,500 feet on Bureau of Land Management lands no longer will be allowed to burn for beneficial results. The energy stored in the fuels on the range has reached a tipping point, and for the balance of the season, new wildfires will be suppressed, Rieser said.
Above 7,500 feet in the region's conifer forests, the trees have begun to dry out, but a lush green understory in the forests is keeping the lid on the potential for a hot fire, Rieser said.
"The green understory acts as a heat sink. Right now, it would take quite a lot to get fire into the crowns" of the trees, Rieser said. "The conditions aren't quite there yet. But, if a monsoon doesn't develop," conditions could change rapidly.
Taylor said that even though conditions in Routt County don't warrant fire restrictions, the Sheriff's Office is emphasizing that people need to use good judgment regarding fire safety.
"We're urging everyone to be very cautious and careful," Taylor said.