Apr 102012
Authors: Elisabeth Willner

Warm spring weather seems great from a student perspective, but for state wildfire authorities, it’s one of many factors signaling a potentially tough season to come.

The Board of Larimer County Commissioners announced Tuesday new fire restrictions to mitigate the potential effects of a low snow pack and drought conditions in the county. Open fires, fireworks and smoking in open areas are all prohibited by the ban, which will go into effect at midnight on Wednesday.

It’s an early announcement for the board, coming five days sooner than last year’s restrictions. And at the root of the extra precautions is an exceptionally dry spring.

Across Colorado, 98 percent of the state is experiencing some level of drought, including Larimer County.

“Larimer County is not looking good,” said Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist. “There are some [counties that are] worse, but not a lot better. It’s been going downhill.”

Doesken said that this past March was the driest on record and that the drought is the worst in the past 10 years. In 2002, the last major drought, several major fires burned in different parts of the state.

This season, Colorado has already had two large fires, the Lower North Fork Fire and the Heartstrong Fire, which burned a combined area of about 28,000 acres. In Larimer County, no major fires have yet occurred, although firefighters contained two small ones in March.

Contributing factors to these fires included high temperatures, low relative humidity and dry fuels, said Ryan Lockwood, the public and media relations coordinator for the Colorado State Fire Service. He said those factors are likely to continue.

“Until July, Predictive Services indicate the likelihood of warmer than normal conditions in this area, as well as drier than normal conditions [in April],” Lockwood said.

Eric Nilsson, the emergency manager for the county, said that the fire danger in Larimer County varies from day to day.

On Friday, the danger was moderate to high because of low humidity, high wind and the many dry grasslands that are typical of this time of year. On Tuesday, the danger had decreased slightly, but not enough to prevent the county commissioners from instating the fire ban.

“We are almost certainly guaranteed to have fires in Larimer County this season,” said Nilsson, noting that fires, both controlled and otherwise, are routine.

Nilsson also said that ideal conditions for a fire don’t necessarily mean one will occur, adding that major fires happen even in the midst of wet seasons, if a given day has low humidity, high winds and a triggering spark like a lightning strike.

That means that a large, destructive fire can happen during both a wet season and a dry one.

Still, the dry weather in Larimer County makes wildfires statistically more likely, since there will be more days with ideal conditions for them.

Doesken said that there is nonetheless still a chance that more humid weather could lower the danger.

“There is still time for cool, wet spring weather that could suppress the fire danger,” Doesken said. “Any storm brings high humidity and precipitation that delays the next potential for a wildfire.”

Collegian writer Elisabeth Willner can be reached at news@collegian.com.

Wildfires in March

Lower North Fork Fire –– Jefferson County
4,140 acres burned
Heartstrong Fire –– Yuma County
24,000 acres burned

Larimer County
Rist Canyon Fire: 1.5 acres burned
Storm Mountain Fire: 15 acres burned

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