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Federal agency predicts significant fire risk for Southwest Colorado

Drought, low soil moisture and below-average snowpack raise concern

Wildfire risk for Southwest Colorado is predicted to be above normal starting in April, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

“The Southwest is forecast to have above normal significant fire potential during most of April through June before the Southwest monsoon arrives in July,” according to an April 1 report issued by NIFC Predictive Services.

The above-normal category indicates there is “significant wildfire potential and a greater than usual likelihood that significant wildland fires will occur.”

The area of increased wildfire risk for May and June includes southern Colorado, southern Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and eastern Texas.

Wildfire risk for Southwest Colorado is predicted to be above normal starting this month, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The drought, below-average snowpack, low soil moisture and dry vegetation contribute to higher wildfire risk for the area.

Without monsoonal precipitation, which has missed Southwest Colorado in recent years, increased wildfire risk is expected to continue throughout the summer and fall.

Climate outlooks indicate unseasonably warm and dry conditions are likely for much of the Intermountain West into early summer, compounding drought conditions.

Esther Godson, a wildland firefighter and public affairs officer for the San Juan National Forest, said in an April 6 email to The Journal that the trend has been for wildfire activity to start earlier in spring and last longer into fall.

“We are coming into our dry season with an existing drought,” she said. “While we did not have a bad winter, our snowpack was slightly below average. Combined, these indicate the potential for an active fire year.”

Godson said fuel moisture levels at mid-elevation in the San Juan Mountains are already receptive to ignition. Spring winds are anticipated to continue, which will further dry out conditions and could drive fire growth. She said west and central areas of the San Juan Forest will enter fire season in late April or early May, with the east side a bit later because of more snowpack.

Wildfire season begins

Fire activity already has increased in March across the U.S., according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Wildfires have broken out in the eastern and southern U.S. and in the Rocky Mountains and Southwest.

“Dry and windy conditions led to short-duration wind-driven large fires across these areas periodically through March, including numerous large fires on March 29,” the report said.

Twenty-eight new large fires were reported over the weekend, according to NIFC. Wildland firefighters and support personnel continue to work on 27 large fires in 10 states.

As of April 5: In Utah, the Choke Cherry Fire north of Cedar City had burned 700 acres and was 0% contained. The Little Pass Fire west of Great Salt Lake had burned 1,300 acres and was 70% contained. In Arizona, the G-22 Fire had burned 300 acres west of Show Low, Arizona, and was 0% contained.

Forest visitors play a critical role in wildlife prevention, Godson said. On average, human-caused wildfires make up 87% of all wildfire occurrences annually.

Many of the fires occur close to roads, communities and recreational areas, posing a threat to public safety. Visitor education about best practices is the goal of land managers, including securing trailer chains, avoiding potential sparks in tall grass and following fire restrictions.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor recreation has become more popular than ever. The Recreate Responsibly Coalition offers guidelines and tips for getting outside and staying healthy while practicing responsible outdoor recreation and wildfire prevention activities.

Southwest Colorado in fire weather

The National Weather Service issued its first red flag warning of the year earlier this week and a fire watch Wednesday for Southwest Colorado. Gusty winds, low relative humidity and dry fuels triggered the warning and watch. The area affected included Fire Weather Zone 207, which includes Montezuma County and southern La Plata County.

Controlled burns are not allowed during red-flag warning days, fire weather watches and wind advisories, said Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin. Citations may be issued if burning occurs during days it is prohibited, or during burn bans.

Cortez Fire Protection District Chief Jay Balfour warned that drier conditions over the past 30 years have increased the risk that controlled burns will get out of hand.

“It is not the same as it was 30 years ago, conditions are much drier, there are more homes, and neighboring property owners are more concerned that a controlled burn next door will cause damage to their property,” he said.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com

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