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Is lightning playing a bigger role in Southwest Colorado wildfires?

Hot, dry and windy conditions set stage for blazes to spread
A thunderstorm passes through La Plata County in 2013, creating lightning strikes from Animas Mountain to Missionary Ridge, just north of Durango. Storms with little rain and a fair amount of lightning have sparked several wildfires this spring and summer across Southwest Colorado, which is experiencing prolonged drought conditions.

Across Southwest Colorado, lightning strikes have sparked several fires this year, a worrying trend as drought conditions take a hold on the region and passing storms drop only superficial amounts of precipitation.

“It’s not uncommon to have a storm come through, and have 50 lightning strikes,” said Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty. “But this year, there’s a higher chance for them to break out and become a bigger fire because it’s so dry.”

Since the fire season started early this summer, several blazes have broken out after lightning strikes.

The biggest, the East Canyon Fire, was spotted June 14 after a storm passed through the day before. It went on to burn about 2,900 acres on the La Plata-Montezuma county line south of U.S. Highway 160 and required an extensive emergency response.

Yet several other lightning-caused blazes have been reported in the past weeks: the Six Shooter Fire near Bondad, the Sand Fire Creek Fire northeast of Pagosa Springs, the Loading Pen Fire north of Dolores and the Morefield Fire in Mesa Verde National Park.

Lightning-caused fires pose a particular challenge for emergency responders, and with no relief in sight to drought conditions in Southwest Colorado, agencies are on high alert.

“We’re not out of the woods, by any means,” Doughty said.

Finding a spark

Lightning-caused fires account for only a portion of burns reported across Colorado, said Tim Mathewson, a fire meteorologist for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.

A map of the region displays areas of interest at the Durango Interagency Dispatch Center, which uses lightning data for early detection of wildfires.

Over the past 10 years, humans have caused an average of 4,050 fires a year in the state, compared with about 725 reported lightning-caused burns.

“Human ignition is unfortunately our biggest source for fires,” Mathewson said.

The problem with lightning, Doughty said, is that it usually occurs deep in the backcountry, whereas most human-triggered burns tend to be in more developed areas along roads and near campgrounds.

“Then that fire has the ability to get a head start on us before we become aware of it,” he said.

And after a storm, a lightning strike can cause trees to smolder for days before winds fan the flames, as was the case with the Yellow Jacket and Spring fires northwest of Cortez in late June.

“After storms, there’s a short window of time to find a start before it takes off,” Doughty said.

Finding fires from above

Spotting fires deep in the backcountry has been significantly aided by aerial technology in recent years.

Steve Ellis, the Southwest District chief for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said aircraft was equipped with technology around 2014 that can spot a heat source the size of a baseball from 20,000 feet in the air.

After a storm passes through, local fire officials can request a flyover, which can reach a region of the state within hours and report potential hot spots to crews on the ground.

“Once we get that information, we can send wildland crews or smokejumpers to check on it,” Doughty said.

Colorado has only two aircraft with this military technology for the entire state, so missions are prioritized, Ellis said. When the aircraft are not available, fire crews will go for the old-school, but effective method of looking for smoke during flights.

Brad Pietruszka, a fuels program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said the agency has its own air fleet for spotting fires. When fire danger is high and resources are limited, he said all fire starts are attacked aggressively.

“We are taking an aggressive approach in an attempt to minimize having to draw on the resources that come with having a large fire,” he said.

A thunderstorm moves through the Hermosa area, producing lightning in 2013.
No relief in sight

Although it might seem Southwest Colorado has experienced more lightning storms than usual this year, that’s not the case, Mathewson said.

Across the state, about 178 lightning-caused fires have been reported this year, he said. In 2018, a bad fire year, the entire year saw 1,060 starts, though Mathewson said it’s important to acknowledge many lightning strikes occur in late summer when monsoon rains arrive.

This year, however, storms have been followed by hot, dry and windy conditions – a recipe for fire, Mathewson said.

Tom Renwick, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said the region this year has had 37 red flag warning days, when conditions for fires are heightened.

In all of 2018, the NWS issued 41 red flag days.

“It’s been especially windy and dry this summer,” Renwick said.

As of Tuesday, the U.S. Drought Monitor had listed most of Southwest Colorado in an “extreme drought.” And nothing in the prediction models show signs of expected moisture or when the monsoon will arrive, Renwick said.

“It’s showing we’re going to be dry through July,” he said. “So it’s not looking good.”


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