March 13, 2009

Fire danger high in Bailey area

Mike Potter
Staff Writer

Beautiful weather in March isn't all it's cracked up to be.

The National Interagency Fire Center Predictive Services is forecasting significant wildland fire danger for the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains from early March until June.

That area of fire danger includes the eastern part of Park County.

"Above normal significant fire potential is expected across the foothills and grasslands of eastern Colorado and most of Kansas during March. This area is highlighted due to abundant fine fuel loadings and below normal precipitation this winter," said the fire agency in its precipitation outlook.

Platte Canyon Fire Chief Jeff Davis said he is worried about the fire danger during the month of March because there's been no significant precipitation since December.

"[Road and Bridge crews] haven't even been out plowing," he said.

A number of red flag warnings were issued in Park County starting on March 2 because of low humidity levels and high winds, which increase the risk of fire danger.

Davis expects no improvement unless there's a big rainfall or snowfall.

But, he said, the predictions that come from the NIFCPS are usually pretty accurate.

"They could be wrong, but usually the predictive services are generally right on as far as moisture," he said.

According to fire information from the NIFCPS, "Significant fire potential is expected to persist through April, with improvement once green-up begins later in the outlook period."

The outlook period ends in June.

Davis said another factor that has him worried is the moisture content of thousand-hour fuels, which are usually larger trees.

As of March 10, the larger trees in the Bailey area were testing at 9 percent moisture, which is very low.

"That's not good," Davis said. "Even if [we] get our spring storms, those big trees will not take in the moisture."

The one-hour fuels (the diameter of about a little finger or smaller) and ten-hour fuels (about the diameter of a wrist or smaller) were at 2-percent moisture as of March 10. The hundred-hour fuels (average-sized trees) were at 4 percent moisture as of March 10.

Leading up to the High Meadow and Hayman fires, the thousand-hour fuels (larger trees) were at 12 percent moisture, he said.

"I've never, since I've been here, seen the thousand-hour fuels so low," Davis said. "This is as dry as it's ever been."

Other fire agencies are picking up on that.

A heavy air tanker and heavy helicopter were brought to the Jefferson County Airport in preparation for a dry spring with increased fire danger.

Davis said those precautions take place every year, but this year they are starting early.

Mike Hessler, the district fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service South Park district, agreed that it was dry, but not everywhere in Park County is as dry as in Bailey.

He described an area ranging from Kenosha Pass, in northcentral Park County, to Trout Creek Pass in southwest Park County, as receiving an average amount of winter precipitation.

Other areas, though, like the area between Lake George, in southeast Park County, Bailey, in northeast Park County, and Tarryall Reservoir, northeast of the center of the county, have received below-average precipitation this winter.

But there is hope.

Hessler said things can change, especially when it comes to the weather.

"It's kind of like, only fools predict fire season," he said.

But he is certain about one thing. "If we don't get significant precipitation, not just average, over March and April, it's going to be extremely dry," he said.

Firefighters and forest service workers aren't the only ones keeping a close eye on the fire risk due to dry, warm weather.

Many homeowners are taking steps to decrease the chance that a wildland fire could damage their homes.

Davis said the Platte Canyon Fire Protection District offices are getting calls from residents seeking information on fire mitigation, which he described as the best way to protect homes when it comes to fire danger.

"The biggest thing [homeowners] can do is create a defensible space," he said.

Davis said residents can call the fire station to get some information about fire mitigation.

Davis has been talking to fire agencies in Jefferson County and is planning a meeting with a number of them to discuss the fire threat, because the problem isn't just a local one.

"The whole Front Range, everywhere across the Front Range, is the same as we are," he said about other fire districts. "They're as nervous as we are as far as the fire danger."

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