Steamboat Springs The same snowy winter that has Chuck Vale concerned about flooding this spring doesn't translate into a reduced fire risk this summer, Routt County's emergency management director said Tuesday.
Vale said that although "one-hour fuels" such as small sticks and grass may be soaked now, they will dry out quickly. And when it comes to what he called "1,000-hour fuels" such as large logs, Vale said it takes more than one wet season to mitigate the risks created by a prolonged period of overall drought.
"One winter after several years of drought doesn't necessarily mean our fire danger has gone away," Vale said. "It takes several years."
Kim Vogel of the U.S. Forest Service said the wet winter could compound fire concerns.
"We'll have lots of plants growing," Vogel said. "If it dries out sometime this summer, there will be a lot of fuel. It depends on what kind of moisture we wind up getting later in the year. We've got a lot of opportunity out there for fires to spread if they get started."
Seasonal forecasts show temperatures may play a role this summer, but there are equal chances of average, below average or above average precipitation, said Paul Frisbie, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
"There's a bias for above-normal temperatures this summer," Frisbie said. "It's not a big one, but it's there."
Vale said high-water concerns have commanded most of his attention recently and have prevented him from taking a hard look at the prospects for wildfire this year. But reached on his cell phone Tuesday, Vale said he had just finished telling local emergency personnel that they need to start preparing for fires at the same time.
"That is way closer to us - right in the nose," Vale said of high water. "But as we're looking at the snow melting off, then right after it I'm looking at the fire coming."
Vale said Routt County residents can expect a drop-off in fire risk in May as temperatures increase and plants turn green. Vale said his concern piques from the Fourth of July through October.
"Our warm May is really a more problematic July and August," Vale said. "When things are bright and green, we're OK."
An increasing number of dead trees because of the state's bark beetle epidemic presents an additional fire concern. Vale said there are mixed opinions about whether the dead trees increase the risk for wildfire, but he said officials are erring on the side of caution. He suggested residents do the same when it comes to dead timber on their own property.
"We believe there is a fire concern with all of the standing dead trees," Vale said. "Assume that it could burn, and you'll be better off."
In the end, Vale said he expects an average summer of about 30 wildfires. Vogel agreed.
"At some point, there's going to be fires," she said. "It's just a matter of when."