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Southwest Colorado’s ‘mega-drought’ raises wildfire concerns

Local officials request restrictions to lower threat
Snowpack in the San Juan Mountains north of Durango is melting quickly this spring. The Animas, Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan river basins have just 50% of the normal snowpack levels for this time of year.

Extreme drought has crept back into Southwest Colorado.

This time last year, after the winter of 2018-19 brought significant snowpack to the Rocky Mountains, headlines and reports across the West trumpeted the end of Colorado’s long-standing drought.

The proclamations, however, were misleading, climate and weather experts said.

“With climate change, we expect to see these really big swings from wet to dry years,” said Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist with Colorado State University. “But the trend is we’re in a mega-drought.”

For context, Udall said it’s important to look at Colorado’s weather the past three years. In 2018, it was one of the hottest and driest years on record. The next year, however, brought one of the best snowpacks in recorded history.

For 2020, it appears the pendulum has swung back to hot and dry.

“It’s not as bad as 2018, but it’s still bad,” Udall said. “Probably within the bottom 10 driest years on record.”

On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor relisted parts of Southwest Colorado in the “extreme drought” category for the first time since the region was downgraded after the 2018-19 winter.

“Southwest Colorado is coming off a bad, multiyear drought, so it doesn’t take much to put it back into an extreme drought listing,” said Brad Pugh, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.

Southwest Colorado’s current dry spell began in October 2019 and lasted through the winter. Though high elevation weather stations recorded about normal snowpack levels, researchers estimated snow levels were below average.

This spring, too, has been all but void of precipitation. April saw just 10% of normal precipitation levels for the region, making it one of the driest months on record. From October to April, the region saw 70% of its average precipitation levels.

As a result, the Animas River is expected to have 63% of its normal water supply.

Unusually high temperatures, too, have exacerbated the lack of snow and rain. In April, for instance, the region was 10 to 20 degrees higher than average, according to data from the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.

Above-average temperatures this early in the season have caused snowpack to melt and rivers to run higher and earlier than normal. The Animas River, for example, is expected to peak this weekend at around 2,700 cubic feet per second. By comparison, the Animas River usually peaks during the first week of June around 4,700 cfs.

Most of the snow has already melted off the San Juan Mountains – the Animas, Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan river basins have just 50% of normal snowpack levels for this time of year.

The hot and dry conditions have elevated concerns about fire danger in the region. Pugh said soil moisture is in the lowest fifth percentile, a sign that fuels on the ground are ripe to burn and would be difficult to put out.

Tumbleweeds fill an irrigation ditch Friday. Soil moisture is in the lowest fifth percentile, a sign that fuels on the ground are ripe to burn and would be difficult to put out.

Hal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District, said local fire chiefs in the region sent a letter Friday to La Plata County, requesting commissioners implement Stage 1 fire restrictions.

La Plata County commissioners are expected to vote on the restrictions Tuesday. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe implemented Stage 1 fire restrictions on Friday.

“We’re seeing significant amounts of dry fuels, and we’re expecting more of this hot and dry and windy conditions,” Doughty said. “We’re all concerned.”

An added layer of concern and complication is how to keep firefighters safe from a possible coronavirus outbreak should a large fire start, Doughty said.

“I think that all of us in the fire service, nationwide, are concerned what it’s going to look like if we get a major event going,” he said.

The problem, Doughty said, is maintaining social-distancing measures and other safety protocols associated with the coronavirus should a large fire require firefighters to work side-by-side and live in emergency camps.

“If you have 1,000 sick firefighters not able to do their job, you’re going to have significantly expanding problems,” he said. “Some community somewhere is going to draw the unlucky card and have that big fire of the year. We’re figuring out what we need to do to be safe.”

On April 7, the Forest Service announced a complete fire ban across 24 national forests in the Rocky Mountain region, including the San Juan National Forest.

Lorena Williams, spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said the agency is expecting above-average fire potential in May and June.

“Fuel dryness levels have hit critical levels, and above-normal fire potential exists at all snow-free elevations in Southwest Colorado,” she said. “We are preparing for active fire behavior that will be difficult to control. As we’ve seen very recently, any ignitions can lead to rapid fire spread when aided by wind and slope. As fuels dry even more, less wind and less slope will result in the same amount of spread.”

Udall said there is some connection between dry years and wetter monsoons later in the summer: The sun heats the land more, which pulls moisture-laden air from thousands of miles away.

“I don’t think there’s any question that happens,” he said. “But it’s just not a guaranteed thing. The odds are just higher.”

Udall pointed to a scientific study published April 17 in Science that concludes a drought of epic portions is the new reality for the American Southwest, driven in part by climate change.

The study’s co-author, A. Park Williams, said he was unavailable for comment Friday.

Williams and his colleagues, however, found by studying soil moisture content in tree ring records that the region had experienced four periods of more than two decades of severe drought conditions in the past 1,200 years.

The study found the current drought in the region since 2000 is the second-worst drought experienced in that time span, second only to a dry spell in the 1500s.

Add complications with climate change, which is expected to move storms farther north and raise temperatures in the Southwest, and concerns about water availability and intensified wildfire seasons begin to mount.

“I’ve always been worried about Southwest Colorado,” Udall said. “As the planet warms, areas right on the edge of big deserts like Southwest Colorado are really at risk.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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