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Dry winter delivers a drought

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald file photo

Dry, cracked earth has been appearing around La Plata County because of high winds, warmer-than-normal temperatures and lack of precipitation. A meteorologist with the National Weather Service says the Southwest hasn’t been this dry since 2002, the year of the Missionary Ridge Fire.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

A lot of Western Colorado has been in drought mode since the beginning of the year, a National Weather Service meteorologist said Thursday.

“It’s not as severe as in 2002, but drought is expanding and becoming more intense,” Jim Pringle said during a stop at The Durango Herald. “But conditions since haven’t been as bad as they are now.”

Justin Kincaid, the U.S. Forest Service’s fire management officer in Durango, agreed that the situation looks grim.

“We could be in our fire season a month early – mid-April instead of mid-May,” Kincaid said. “We have to wait for the results of the spring rains.”

A piddling amount of rain isn’t going to do much good, Kincaid said.

“We’re going to need a fair amount of rain or snow to help,” Kincaid said. “A sprinkle won’t help because we’re drier than usual.”

Meteorologists measure drought by various standards, including soil moisture, water content of the snowpack, stream flow, water stored in reservoirs, the moisture level of fuels such as trees and grass and the amount of precipitation other than snow, Pringle said.

By way of example, Pringle said, the snow-water equivalent at Vallecito on April 16 was 23 percent of average; at Cascade, 7 percent of average; at Mancos, 5 percent of average; and 16 percent of average at Molas Lake.

On the same date in 2002, there were only zeros in the snow-water equivalent chart for Mancos, Cascade and Vallecito and 9 percent at Molas Lake.

Even at the Wolf Creek Pass summit, which had a wet 2011-2012 winter, the snow-water equivalent was only 65 percent of average. In 2002, the percent of average was 29.

The National Weather Service coordinates forecasts with the Inter-Agency Fire Center before issuing red-flag warnings.

“Red-flag warnings require two conditions,” Pringle said. “Fuel has to be dry enough to ignite and burn and the weather – mainly humidity and wind speed – has to be conducive to wildfire spread.”

Numerous red-flag warnings have been issued in Colorado this year.

The Denver Water Board has declared a Stage 1 drought because of the dry winter.

Denver Water asked customers to water sparingly outdoors. It asks customers to water only two days a week and only in areas that really need it.

Mandatory watering rules will take effect Tuesday, the board said.

The Climate Prediction Center website has maps of the entire country showing weather conditions. The maps are updated weekly.

“We’re in a not-great situation,” Pringle said. “The latest outlook is that we’re in a drought.”

daler@durangoherald.com

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