Weather raises red flags

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— A large plume of smoke hovering in front of Sleeping Giant on Monday was no cause for alarm.

Several acres of hay fields were being burned at a ranch in the lower Elk River Valley to make way for new vegetation. Smoke is common this time of year as ranchers clear out ditches and old vegetation. But weather conditions prompted the National Weather Service to issue a red flag warning Monday for western Colorado.

Fire and law enforcement were not warned a burn would be occurring at the ranch along Routt County Road 44. That, along with the red flag warning, prompted firefighters to check out the controlled burn.

County officials recommend not burning when the area is under a red flag warning, which has occurred several times this year. "It's a heads up that conditions are right, that should you have a fire starting, you may have trouble controlling it," Routt County Emergency Management Director Chuck Vale said. "The red flag is a good tool."

The warning was in effect from noon to 8 p.m. Monday and was triggered by low humidity and high, erratic winds. The warning was also in effect Saturday.

Conditions were expected to improve today, and the National Weather Service did not expect to issue another red flag warning, Grand Junction meteorologist Heather Orow said. Today's forecast calls for scattered showers.

Dry lighting is another concern that has prompted red flag warnings. The problem is that recent storms have not been accompanied by much rain. Although the short showers are enough to keep grasses from igniting, Vale said, it takes a lot more rain to saturate the fire fuels such as branches.

Lighting has been the cause of 90 percent of forest fires in Routt County, Vale said.

Vale encourages anyone conducting a controlled burn to call Routt County Commun--ications at 879-1090. Communications Cen--ter personnel will advise ranchers whether conditions are safe for a burn.

Vale said agricultural burns likely will continue until July 1, and people should not be alarmed if they see smoke in rural areas. It is generally still wet enough that burns will not get out of control, he said.

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