Feb 042003
Authors: Jana Gurkin

The drought plaguing Colorado and other states continues to deplete the already low water supply but has also brought about a fear of fire danger sooner in the year, maybe even in March or April.

According to professors at CSU, this winter has brought more snow and precipitation than last year; yet Colorado remains deeply in drought.

States like Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and others have experienced damage from the drought that could prevent a quick recovery. The small amount of snow from this winter is only the beginning of what is needed to get Colorado out of the drought.

Bill Romme, a professor in the department of forest sciences, said many states are suffering, but “Colorado is among the most serious states.”

Climatologist Nolan Doesken said that for the current water year, Colorado has accumulated approximately 80 percent of the long-term average. Although that may not sound too bad, it is not good news to him. He said that the 80 percent means Colorado is still depleting its water sources, but the current situation could easily change if a few big storms come through in the spring.

Romme also said it is difficult to accurately read the levels of precipitation in comparison with previous years. “It varies so much from place to place,” he said.

Many places in Colorado have considerably low amounts than they would normally have at this time in the year, and even though some locations may have gotten several feet of snow this winter, it is still much less than what the normal amount of precipitation should be.

Doesken said that the overall picture in terms of water supply is actually in worse shape than at this time last year. He also said that water reservoirs’ supplies have depleted since last year and that as a whole, there are more deficits in the water supply that is available for use.

When droughts occur: conditions can become drier, concern of fire danger can grow and fire outbreaks can happen. This may happen more frequently in mountainous areas accustomed to receiving large amounts of moisture.

Ordinarily, the fire season begins in late June to early July, but if Colorado does not experience enough spring storms, the fire danger could begin in March or April.

“If we don’t get substantial rain this spring, then we’re looking at a really bad fire season,” Romme said.

It is possible that Colorado could still have a fairly normal season, and it simply depends on what spring storms will come in the months ahead, Romme said. If there are several storms and Colorado ends up having a wet spring, then the fire season could be normal and not unusually severe.

“(The fire danger) could be as bad, if not worse, than last year,” said Philip Omi, a professor in the department of forest sciences.

Although it is difficult to predict how early fires may start occurring, when they do start they will likely begin at the lowest elevations where it is driest, before moving into higher elevations, which take longer to dry out. Places such as the foothills of the Front Range are the areas that are most likely to catch fire sooner.

However, preventive measures are already being taken to try and avert as much fire danger as possible. Romme said federal and state agencies for fire protection are already preparing for fires in March and April.

Also, the state of Colorado and the United States Fire Service are moving to implement fuel reduction and fire litigation throughout the Front Range. This would mean doing things such as controlled burns to minimize the damage that outbreaks do when they start in dry areas.

He said many people tend to forget that the West simply is a dry area with a dry climate, and the period between 1970 and 2000 was actually considerably wet compared with what the real west is like.

“Drought is a recurrent phenomenon in this part of the world,” Romme said. He also added that, although we try to tame fires, the normally dry conditions of the West include the fires that come along with it.

“Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem we live in,” Romme said. “We will never be able to eliminate them.”

Pull out Quote:

“Drought is a recurrent phenomenon in this part of the world,” said Bill Romme, professor of the Forest Sciences.

“Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem we live in. We will never be able to eliminate them,” said Bill Romme, professor of Forest Sciences.

Outbox: Ways for people to protect themselves and the environment during a drought.

1. Cut down trees near houses in woody areas

2. Do not keep stacks of firewood next to the house

3. Take shorter showers

4. Turn water off when not using it

5. Install water-efficient toilets

6. Properly dispose of cigarette butts

7. Be careful when lighting campfires

Source: Bill Romme and Philip Omi, professors in the department of forest sciences

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